Addressing the nation in the marathon press conference on Thursday, Russia’s Vladimir Putin said he was running for reelection in order to “improve quality of life” in the country.
Putin replied to 65 questions during the hours-long televised event, marking his first public appearance since he announced he would be running for another six-year term in 2018. Notably, the Russian leader faced off against political rival and media socialite Ksenia Sobchak, who quizzed him on dangers facing opposition politicians in Russia.
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“People understand that being an opposition leader in Russia means that you would either be killed, charged with something, or something similar would happen,” she said, appearing at the conference as a member of the press.
“My question is – why does this happen? Does the government fear honest competition?” she added.
Sobchak specifically mentioned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who would likely not be allowed to run due to graft charges he claims are politically motivated.
Navalny as a ‘Russian edition’ of Saakashvili
In response, Putin likened Navalny to former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, implying that the Russian politician could cause unrest similar to Saakashvili’s protest movement in Ukraine. The Russian president avoided mentioning Navalny by name, referring to him as “the persons you mentioned” instead.
“The one you mentioned is just a Russian edition of Saakashvili,” he said. “Do you want those ‘Saakashvilis’ to destabilize the country? Do you want us to experience a string of ‘Maidans’?” Putin added, referring to the Ukraine revolution that led to a pro-Western government in Kyiv.
“Do you want to have coup attempts? We have already been through that,” he told Sobchek. “I believe that the absolute, overwhelming majority of Russian citizens does not want that and will not stand for it,” Putin said to the applause of journalists gathered in the Moscow venue.
Reporters at the venue hold up placards reading ‘ecology,’ ‘education,’ and ‘the Far East’ to indicate the topic of their questions
Fishing for gold
Returning to the issue raised by Sobchak on the Kremlin fearing competition, Putin said “the government does not fear and has never feared anyone.” In an apparent jab at Navalny’s graft charges, Putin also invoked the rise of Russian tycoons after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
“The authorities should not be like a bearded man who is lazily picking cabbage from his beard and looks on as the state is turning into a muddied pond where the tycoons are fishing for goldfish, the way it was here in the 1990s and the way it is right now in Ukraine,” he said, employing unusual imagery to illustrate the influence of oligarchs in Eastern Europe.
Making ‘noise’ not enough
In a separate response, Putin said it was not enough for his opponents to “make noise at city squares or sit around talking about the ‘anti-people regime'” and that they should instead make concrete suggestions to improve the situation.
Putin also said people in Russia had a right to be dissatisfied with the way things are in the country as the authorities could have achieved more results.
‘However, when they look at the proposition put forward by the opposition […] major doubts appear,” Putin said. “It would be very simple for me to say that it wasn’t my job to bring up competitors to myself, but I should also tell you that I think that our political environment […] needs to be competitive.”