Campaign diary

Putin warns of “Saakashvilis” on the streets

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Vladimir Putin speaking at his annual press conference today

by Sarah Hurst

Vladimir Putin once again refused to say Alexei Navalny’s name at his annual press conference, instead comparing him to Mikheil Saakashvili in response to a question from presidential candidate and Dozhd TV reporter Ksenia Sobchak. Former Georgian president and Odessa Oblast governor Saakashvili has been leading protests against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and was recently released by a court ahead of a possible trial for allegedly receiving funds from a Russia-backed politician.

Sobchak told Putin that she had decided to ask him a question as a reporter because there are no presidential debates in which she can participate. She wanted to know why the government fabricated a criminal case against Alexei Navalny, why it puts pressure on her own campaign and why people in opposition are jailed or killed. “Why is the government afraid of honest competition?” she asked.

No more Maidans

“Do you want dozens of Saakashvilis running around on our streets?” Putin responded, insisting that Russians don’t want “one Maidan after another” as in Ukraine. He also randomly brought up the Occupy Wall Street movement as another example of a failed street protest. Putin didn’t say anything specifically about Navalny, but made it clear that any measures against the opposition are justifiable in order to prevent a revolution – although with the election completely rigged, a revolution is the only possible way of changing the government in Russia.

Putin said that the problem with the Russian opposition is that they don’t have any positive proposals – ignoring the fact that Navalny launched his election manifesto yesterday. He pointed to Sobchak’s slogan, “Against all,” as an illustration of this. He also explained his apparent popularity by citing dubious economic statistics that demonstrate strong growth and increases in wages and pensions.

Another female journalist, Tania Felgengauer, who recently survived having her throat slashed by an intruder at Ekho Moskvy radio station, asked Putin why Rosneft boss Igor Sechin was able to refuse to appear as a witness at the trial of former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, while people like Alexei Navalny’s brother Oleg and famous film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov are unfairly arrested. Putin insisted that Russia has a completely fair justice system and that it must be up to the courts to make the decisions. He said that Sechin could have appeared in court, but it didn’t matter that he refused, since had already submitted his testimony.

Ukrainian independence a mistake

The rest of the press conference, which lasted for three hours and 40 minutes, was entirely predictable. Ukrainian reporter Roman Tsymbalyuk asked a question about Russia’s role in the war, as usual, to which Putin replied that there are no Russian troops in Donbass, but they must “stand by” to prevent Ukrainian nationalists from committing a massacre worse than the one in Srebrenica. Putin also expounded on his distorted view of history in which Russians and Ukrainians have always been one people, but Ukrainian nationalists have artificially tried to create a separate country.

Putin ridiculed the Trump-Russia investigation, saying it was invented by Trump’s opponents, who don’t respect the will of the US electorate. He said he hoped that despite the opposition, Trump would be able to “normalise” relations with Russia. Putin also poured scorn on doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, reminding his audience that Rodchenkov had once tried to commit suicide, and said he was certain that the doping allegations were deliberately timed to coincide with the Russian election.

Most of the questions today were posed by journalists who are loyal to the Kremlin – one starting out by telling Putin, “We all love and respect you” – and they can be expected to work overtime to continue polishing Putin’s image as the election date approaches.

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