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World

It's Time Again For Putin's Annual Call-In TV Show

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian czars had a tradition, anyone however humble could appeal for help from the ruler. Once a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin does roughly the same thing. Today is the day for his live, televised event called "Direct Line With Vladimir Putin." Andrew Roth has been watching. He's Moscow reporter for The Washington Post. He's on the line. Good Morning.

ANDREW ROTH: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How's it work?

ROTH: So Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, sits down in a very modern studio, and listens to video, telephone, SMS questions for very long times, sometimes up to four hours. And he does this every year for the last 14 years, except for 2008, I think.

INSKEEP: OK. You mean even when he was not actually president of Russia, but everybody knew he was kind of running the place, he went ahead and did this live, televised event even then?

ROTH: Yeah, and that's a very good way to notice it. Yes, despite not being president, he was still the person who was on television. And it's an important way for people to see who's in charge.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are people asking him today?

ROTH: So mainly people will ask about the economy. I think it's something that interests Russians. And for Putin, this is a good way to reassure the public that the economy is OK, that the government is interested in their problems and also to humanize himself a little bit, too.

INSKEEP: I assume there's some vetting of the questions. It's not like he's being thrown live questions from some kind of protester.

ROTH: Well, the Kremlin administration says that he doesn't know what questions are. Other reports in Russian media do say that already for several days there have been several rehearsals of this event. So, you know, the question depends on the reporting. Although, I doubt that they're completely coming out of the left field.

INSKEEP: Well, in the parts that you've been able to see today in this multihour event, has he received any particularly critical or difficult questions?

ROTH: I think that the questions are actually often if not critical at least, you know - some of them are quite sharp. The first question was about the state of the roads in the city of Omsk which is a very industrial city. People are very angry at local officials quite often, and they come onto this show in order to vent to Putin himself.

You mentioned this tradition of sort of good czar and bad boy czar - or bad noble. And this is the chance for Putin to say, oh, yes, this is very bad. And an hour into the show, he announced that the administration had already identified which roads they're going to fix in that city.

INSKEEP: OK. So criticism of different parts of the government or different levels of government, that's OK. But criticism of Vladimir Putin, is that allowed?

ROTH: You don't hear that as much on this particular show. Usually people ask him somewhat more softball questions. Although, he was asked about his wife, if she had remarried, if he was considering getting married himself. But usually any sort of direct criticism about his actions, I haven't heard that yet.

INSKEEP: You know, we mentioned that a couple of times this tradition of the czars to listen to these appeals. There are democratic of versions of this. Abraham Lincoln used to take calls from anybody who came into his office. I just wonder how this feels to you. Does this feel in any way democratic that the people get to ask questions of their president or does it feel autocratic to you?

ROTH: I think that there's sort of a very fine line there. I think that it's worth respecting that Putin does do quite a few of these public appearances, not just this one but also a sort of live line with journalists every year. I've seen very sharp questions directed at him at those events.

That said, there's something very important about the rules of the game. There are no follow-up questions. It's very hard to pin him down. And with enough coaching, he can sort of control it. So I do think that there's a chance for some people to speak out here, but ultimately, you know, he owns the rules of the game.

INSKEEP: Andrew Roth of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

ROTH: Thank You. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.