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Putin to hold 'conversation with the people' on TV

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, Oct 25 (Reuters) Have a problem in Russia? There is one sure-fire way to solve it: Get on the telephone to President Vladimir Putin.

Putin today will field questions, requests and complaints from ordinary people across his vast country in a live television show -- called a direct line to the president -- that has become a hotly anticipated annual ritual.

The president's critics say the practice is a fig leaf which obscures his efforts to dismantle democracy. The Kremlin says it shows Putin's close connection to his people.

For those lucky enough to get through, it can work wonders.

In 2002, an 11-year-old girl complained on air that her town only put up an artificial tree for the New Year holiday. Days later a real tree was installed in the town square.

In 2004, pensioner Lyudmila Karachentseva called the show to tell Putin her village had no running water. The president threatened to sack the regional governor if he did not act. A new water pipe was installed soon after.

''It is unprecedented that the president of any country should appear live on television for several hours answering unscripted questions,'' said Deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

''It is not pre-taped. It is impossible to stage-manage. It is a real, direct conversation.'' Although the three-hour length of the programme is extraordinary, presidents of many democratic countries regularly take unscripted questions from journalists and the public at press conferences and on radio and television shows.

By 1715 hrs IST yesterday, 1.32 million advance questions had been submitted via email and a telephone hotline, the show's Web site www.president-line.ru said. People can also ask questions live from mobile studios dotted around the country.

BREAD-AND-BUTTER Putin is likely to touch on the big international issues such as Iran's uranium enrichment programme, North Korea's nuclear test, Russia's role as an energy supplier and its row with neighbouring Georgia.

But the broadcast, if it follows the pattern of previous years, will focus on bread-and-butter issues.

''The big employer in my town is barely functioning and there is no other work. Will the state help factories like this one?'' wrote one questioner on the Web site.

''I am a third-year student. Do I qualify for a loan?'' asked another.

The broadcast is a favourite showcase for Putin. A hugely popular president coming to the end of his second and final term in office, he has an impressive command of most subjects.

Putin also relishes the opportunity to take the side of the ''little man'', publicly dressing down officials when they fail ordinary citizens.

But the TV session is a poor substitute for the democratic institutions Putin has undermined, say his critics.

Since he took office in 2000, direct elections for governors have been abolished and Kremlin-linked businesses have bought the biggest private television stations and newspapers.

Putin's direct line to the nation ''is a very efficient public relations exercise'', said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

''This serves the function of pretending we are holding the government accountable.'' Putin's opponents also dispute the Kremlin's claim that the session is spontaneous.

Human rights group Memorial said two of its activists in the Arctic town of Vorkuta were beaten up when they tried to get near a live microphone during last year's broadcast.

Reuters PDS VP0430

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