, Moscow, Russian Federation, Dec 14 – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said the opposition was hoping for a “coup”, during a marathon press conference that marked his first major public appearance since announcing he would seek a new six-year term in elections next year.
At the annual event, which this year lasted almost four hours and saw more than 1,600 journalists accredited, Putin also touched on Olympic doping, North Korea and the achievements of US leader Donald Trump.
Putin warned against unrest in response to a question from Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite and liberal journalist who announced in October she would run in next year’s elections, about whether authorities were afraid of opposition.
“Do you want us to have coup attempts here? We’ve already been through all that. You want to go back to that? I am sure that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not want this and will not stand for it,” he told Sobchak.
“We don’t want a second edition of today’s Ukraine for Russia, do we?” asked Putin, referring to the pro-Western 2014 uprisings that culminated in the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Sobchak mentioned Alexei Navalny by name, the opposition leader who has spent the last year gathering support for a Kremlin bid but is barred from running because of a criminal conviction that he says is politically motivated.
In a video posted online after the speech, Navalny said his movement would push for the vote to be boycotted if he is not able to run.
“We want to participate in the election, but if they prevent us, we will organise to boycott the vote,” he said.
Many suspect Sobchak, whose father was Putin’s political mentor and who is rumoured to be the president’s goddaughter, is standing as a Kremlin “spoiler” candidate to split the opposition and boost interest in the polls.
– Second only to Stalin –
The press conference kicked off with a question from a Moscow radio station on why Putin was seeking re-election.
“To improve quality of life for Russians,” said Putin, who has been in power since 1999. He could become the country’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin if he wins a fourth term.
Putin said he would stand for election as an independent candidate rather than with the backing of his traditional party, United Russia.
A journalist asked about the state of the opposition in polls in which Putin will face only nominal competition and is all but certain to cruise to victory.
“Is it up to me to form the opposition myself?” Putin replied. “I think in politics, as in the economy, there should be competition. I will strive for this.”
Putin’s main challenge will be to convince Russians to vote at all in polls in which the outcome already appears clear. According to the independent pollster Levada, only 28 percent of Russians said they were certain to vote in March.
– Trump’s achievements –
Putin typically addresses local, national and international issues at the end-of-year event, which he hosted this year for the 13th time.
In response to a question from an American journalist he hailed the “significant achievements” of President Donald Trump but denied Moscow had meddled in the election that brought him to power.
“Look at how the markets are reacting, they are growing. This shows confidence in the American economy. With all due respect to (Trump’s) opponents, these are objective facts,” he said.
Putin also addressed the doping scandal that has seen Russia barred from competing in next year’s Winter Olympics and athletes from the country only allowed to take part under a neutral flag.
Russia would “defend the interests of our athletes, including in civil courts”, he said, even as it cooperated with the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee.
He accused state doping programme whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, who fled to America in 2016, of working “under the control and the protection of the FBI”.
When asked about North Korea, Putin said he welcomed the United States’ “awareness of reality” in the crisis after Washington announced it was ready for talks with Pyongyang without preconditions.
As in previous years, there was a carnival atmosphere in the press conference hall. Journalists held signs to attract the president’s attention and one reporter even dressed as the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas, an AFP correspondent said.
Signs offered an indication of the sort of question the reporters would ask if given the floor by the president. Slogans included “children”, “agriculture”, and “spiritual foundations”.