At Vladimir Putin’s final press conference of 2014, the Russian president answered reporters’ questions on a range of topics from the fall of the ruble, the Ukraine crisis and relations with the United States to the size of his salary.
Russian President Vladimir Putin before his annual press conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18. Photo: Konstantin Zavrazhin / RG
On Thursday, Dec. 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his 10th annual press conference. The question-and-answer session traditionally wraps up the year and completes the Russian leader’s series of major press events, the other two being his “direct line” television interview in spring, during which he chats to members of the public, and his address to the Federal Assembly in the fall or early winter, which sets the agenda for legislators and government. Putin will speak to the nation once again later this month, of course, but only to offer his congratulations on the New Year.
This year’s press conference was held in unprecedented circumstances. In the days leading up to it, Russia experienced another “Black Tuesday” (the first of which occurred when the ruble fell sharply in one day back in 1992). The ruble is again depreciating against foreign currencies.
On Dec. 16, the Russian currency slid by as much as 20 rubles against major world currencies, closing at 80 to the dollar and 100 to the euro (or higher at some exchange offices). The currency appreciated somewhat the next day after the government took measures to stabilize the situation.
Experts posit that the Central Bank made some currency interventions during the day, and the first wave of hysteria gripping the market eventually subsided.
Two weeks prior to this, Putin had delivered his address to the Federal Assembly, in which the economic situation in the country was top of the agenda alongside international policy.
The economy comes to the fore
During the Dec. 18 press conference, the emphasis shifted. Although the usual questions about Ukraine, Crimea and relations with the West resurfaced, most were interested in Putin’s response to the economic crisis. Experts and journalists pondered the prospect of personnel changes — from pinpointing scapegoats to sacking the entire cabinet.
Resignations or sackings, however, were not forthcoming. Putin backed the actions of the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He considers their work satisfactory, though he chided that decisions need to be taken more promptly.
“Both the Central Bank [on the night of Dec. 16 the regulator raised the benchmark interest rate for the sixth time this year, raising it by 6.5 percentage points from 10.5 to 17 percent — Ed.] and the government are taking adequate measures in the current situation. There are issues <...> regarding the timeliness and quality of the measures, but overall they are perfectly adequate and being taken in the right direction,” Putin said during the conference.
Who is to blame for the crisis?
No specific measures to combat the crisis were put forward, but none were expected: The president does not take decisions based on Q&A sessions with journalists. In this format, only if a specific complaint is made does he issue instructions to deal with it.
However, Putin did specify how long he thought the crisis would last: The worst-case scenario is around two years. Russia’s head of state believes that the fall of the ruble is the result primarily of external factors.
“External economic factors are at play, above all, of course, the price of energy, oil and, consequently, gas,” said Putin, adding that “we also failed to do some things we should have done,” though he declined to clarify what.
In his opinion, the ruble will continue to strengthen, although the comment could be considered somewhat illogical given his caveat that oil prices could drop further.
Foreign policy: a new cold war and the crisis in Ukraine
The political questions covered familiar ground. A Ukrainian journalist was worried about the fate of Ukrainian prisoners of war, including servicewoman Nadezhda Savchenko, on trial in Russia for alleged complicity in the murder of the Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin. Putin said that there were no prisoners of war in Russia, and that Savchenko would be released if found not guilty.
A BBC correspondent asked about the new “cold war” and Russian military maneuvers. The president did not concur that the Russian Federation had contributed to the rise in geopolitical tension. He slated the U.S. for its defense policy, namely the siting of anti-missile systems and NATO bases close to Russia’s borders. He reminded his audience that Russia’s defense budget is a tenth of the United States’.
“Our defense budget for next year has increased in dollar terms, if I’m not mistaken, to approximately $50 billion, while the Pentagon’s budget is $575 billion,” said Putin.
The questions also touched upon relations with Russia’s eastern partners, including Turkey, as part of Russia’s “pivot to the East.” Putin assured that the step was dictated by economics, since the Asia-Pacific region is developing dynamically.
Domestic matters: all commitments will be fulfilled
Internal issues relating to the social obligations of the state, the high-profile health care reforms (which began in Moscow by slashing the number of physicians) and maternity protection are topics which appear in every address delivered by the president.
But whereas the leitmotif in 2012, for instance, was the ban on the adoption of Russian children, in the 2014 conference the social sphere receded into the background amid the economic uncertainty. Nevertheless, Putin affirmed that all social commitments would be met.
Presidential election plans and salary
Putin also faced questions about his off-the-scale ratings (which he insists he does not think about), the presidential elections (too early to say) and private life (“everything’s OK”).
One question pertained to oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin pardoned a year ago. The Russian president freed the former Yukos head on “humanitarian grounds,” so that he could visit his sick mother. Khodorkovsky has the right to engage in politics and could even take part in the next presidential elections, conceded Putin.
Another provocative question concerned the salary of Head of Russia's largest oil company Igor Sechin. But Putin claimed that he did not know how much the Rosneft chief earns, or even the size of his own wage package.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t even know my own salary. It arrives, I put it in my account, I don’t even count it,” remarked Putin.
The press conference this year lasted three hours, while in past years Putin has sometimes exceeded four. Pointed questions — this year focusing on friends in high places, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (who, according to TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak, permits mob law in respect of terrorists’ families), relations with Iran (the president was rebuked by an Iranian journalist for not developing relations with his country) — are always part of Putin’s annual press conference, adding drama to the proceedings.
Forecast for 2015: Russians will have to tighten their belts
The president’s basic message was contained in the economic section of the speech: The government will continue its adopted course and will not be pressured into making concessions on either foreign or domestic (including personnel) policy.
Russians will have to “tighten their belts,” but external circumstances are primarily to blame.
“We will get through this period and out of the present difficulties, and strengthen our positions at home, in the world economy and on the international stage,” were Putin’s closing remarks, summing up what has been one of the most difficult economic and political years for Russia in recent memory.