April 23, 2018

‘Are You Normal?’ Putin Asks U.S. Congress in Annual News Gathering

“This is all made up by people who oppose Trump to make his work look illegitimate,” Mr. Putin said, adding that there is a “deep state” in the United States that fosters hostility toward Moscow: “Do they want to ban all contact?”

Asked to assess Mr. Trump’s record, he said that was up to the American people, but noted some “serious achievements.”

“Look at the markets, how they went up; that speaks about investors’ trust in what he does,” said Mr. Putin.

He also held out hope that Mr. Trump would keep his campaign promise to improve ties with Moscow, repeating that there were many areas of common concern, such as terrorism, Afghanistan and the spread of nuclear weapons.

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The buffet table at Mr. Putin’s annual news conference, which he used to promote his presidential campaign and to jab the United States. Credit Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

On North Korea, also known as the Democratic Republic of North Korea, Mr. Putin mocked Congress for condemning Russia while seeking its help.

“You are interesting guys,” the president said with a smirk. American lawmakers appear to be good-looking, well dressed and smart, he said, but they “are placing us on the same shelf with D.P.R.K. and Iran while simultaneously pushing Trump toward solving the North Korean and Iran nuclear problems through joint efforts with us. Are you normal at all?”

A few Russian journalists from the independent press managed to ask serious questions on issues like the absence of political competition, the lack of rule of law and government favoritism toward Putin cronies. Mr. Putin inevitably sidestepped them.

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He did sometimes concede there were problems, but invariably laid the blame somewhere outside the Kremlin walls. The Olympic doping scandal was one such topic.

Mr. Putin, who cut his teeth as a K.G.B. spy, suggested that Grigory M. Rodchenkov, the whistle-blower who revealed the state-backed Russian doping program, had become a hostage of the F.B.I. after fleeing to the United States.

“What are they doing with him?” Mr. Putin said. “What drugs are they giving him to make him say what they want him to say?”

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On domestic matters, interest was focused on the presidential election, which Mr. Putin is expected to win handily.

One of his opponents, Ksenia A. Sobchak, attended the news conference in her role as a leading journalist for the independent television channel Dozhd, saying it was her only chance to ask him a question since he refused to debate.

Ms. Sobchak said that being an opposition candidate in Russia meant being jailed or worse, and cited the case of Aleksei A. Navalny, who has been repeatedly harassed through physical attacks and what he calls politically motivated court cases and convictions that make him ineligible to run.

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The journalist Ksenia A. Sobchak, one of Mr. Putin’s opponents, asking a question of Mr. Putin during the news conference. Credit Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

“Is the government literally afraid of genuine competition?” she asked.

To this and another question, Mr. Putin said that Russia should have a competitive electoral system and that the lack of support for the opposition was not because of repression but their own actions.

“It is important to not just make noise out there on public squares or behind the scenes, and talk about a regime that is against the people,” he said. “It is important to offer something, some improvement.”

Mr. Putin compared Mr. Navalny to Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who became a figure in the Ukrainian opposition and has been making a spectacle of himself at anticorruption protests in Kiev in recent weeks.

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“The people you mention are Saakashvilis; you want them to destabilize the situation in the country?” said Mr. Putin, who avoids mentioning Mr. Navalny by name. “I am sure that the majority of Russians do not want this and won’t allow this to happen.”

The annual news conference is the main chance for journalists from all across Russia to come to Moscow to try to ask the president a question, and every year it becomes a little more chaotic, with some 1,640 journalists accredited this year. Those attending were jammed into one auditorium trying to attract Mr. Putin’s attention by screaming, and many waved signs naming their region or issue.

Republic.ru, a online magazine, said the event had become such a bore that it refused to cover it this year and offered readers a 50 percent discount on subscriptions while it was happening.

One of the few electric moments occurred when the owner of a fish plant in the northern city of Murmansk was called on. After admitting that he had lied about being a journalist, he made an impassioned plea for the president to rescue his industry.

At another point, scanning the room, Mr. Putin started to answer a question about the lack of competition in the presidential election by noting that somebody was holding up a sign saying “Bye-bye Putin.”

The woman holding it explained that it was actually “Babay Putin,” Grandpa Putin in the language of the ethnic Tatar minority, and she asked about its preservation.

“Ah, babay,” said Mr. Putin. “My vision does not seem to be getting any better with age.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/world/europe/vladimir-putin-media.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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