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Nezavisimaya Gazeta: In top secret surroundings

There’s nothing a popular president enjoys more than a chance to meet informally with his adoring electorate to chat one on one about the issues that concern the common man. And Russia’s Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is no exception. It has become something of a tradition for the president of this vast country with its ten time zones to hold live televised conversations with the Russian people in which ordinary random citizens from every corner of the land who just happen to be on the street in front of a television camera spontaneously ask Putin the questions that trouble them most, which miraculously just happen to be about the very issues he wants to talk about. Putin’s answers to these completely unrehearsed questions are always remarkably lucid and coherent, as if though the wise leader is actually able to anticipate just what concerns are burning in the hearts and minds of his loyal subjects. Never are there any unexpected surprises, questions about awkward topics (Yukos? The Russian public has clearly never even heard the word…), or negative issues brought up. While anybody can see that the whole event is carefully stage-managed, Russians still tune in in droves to watch these slick prime-time spectacles. Just before the most recent such event, which took place a few weeks ago, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (which, despite its name, is anything but an “independent newspaper”, being owned by Gazprom) sent its reporters to four cities where lucky Russians would get a chance to talk to the man himself. The stories filed by even these loyal Kremlin mouthpieces about just how carefully controlled everything was – to the point where the press wasn’t even allowed to cover such an inherently public event – would be comical if they weren’t such a sad testament to the near-total erosion of free speech and democracy in Russia. We offer our exclusive translation below.

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In top secret surroundingsBy Alexander Deryabin, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 19.10.2007Studios of communication with the head of state were located in 12 points of Russia, yet another mobile television studio was found in Kazakhstan’s Aqtau. By tradition, the event was competently directed, which is why Putin’s conversation with the people took place without prevocational questions or any unexpected surprises.In Vladivostok, from where the president received the first question, a gale warning had already been issued on the morning of 18 October. The bad weather, as bad luck would have it, got really bad towards evening, and everyone who gathered on the central square once again experienced on themselves: even though Vladivostok may be located at the same latitude as Sochi, its longitude sure isn’t that of the Black Sea. Which is why the first question was about the “island syndrome” that many residents of Primorsky Kray [on Russia’s Pacific coast] suffer from. In order to fly to Sochi for vacation, you need to lay out no less than 45 thsd. rub. [over $1800] for a ticket. Using umbrellas to shelter themselves from the wind, more than a hundred people – envoys who had come to the live television linkup from the outlying districts of the Kray – had good words to say about the organizers for the free hot supper that had infused them with vigor, stamina, and optimism before airtime.

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A gale warning in Vladivostok did not get in the way of conducting a live television linkup with the head of state.

On the eve of the live television linkup with the president, rumors were going about in Vladivostok that somebody or other wanted to conduct a rally in support of the arrested mayor Vladimir Nikolayev on the Square for the Fighters for Power of the Soviets (that’s what the main square of the city is called) right during the live broadcast. But the rally never did take place.In Novosibirsk, it became known that residents of the capital of Siberia would be able to ask the president questions two days before the event. Reports appeared that the communication center would be set up in Akademgorodok, by the Institute of Nuclear Physics. In these same reports it was indicated that “participation in the event of journalists is not provided for”. «NG» was not able to get any kind of clarification in this regard either in the administration of the Oblast or in the plenipotentiary representation of the Siberian Federal District. The press secretary of the plenipotentiary representative of the SFD, Lyubov Shalneva, reported that engaging in the organization of the meeting was exclusively the administration of the president: “This is a campaign of the television channels, so all questions are not to us”. Not long before the start of the direct line, journalists gathered at the building of the Institute of Nuclear Physics.Astonishingly, everybody was being let into the building. But only very few managed to get beyond the entrance: security was politely asking for some kind of pass – in all likelihood, allowing one to get into the event itself in the conference hall. Security was sending journalists to the pass office, but its chief was explaining that “employees of the institute – three thousand people, every one wants to spend some time in the hall, but in it – all of a hundred places”. In such a manner, from his words it followed that only employees of the institute could ask a question of the president in Novosibirsk, and not even all of them – many were unable to fit into the hall, and therefore crowded the approaches to it or simply hung around the building.In Ekaterinburg, journalists were continually unable from early morning to clarify where the mobile communications center with the president would be working. Employees of the Sverdlovsk GTRK [State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company], that was organizing the broadcast, was obstinate about not wanting to tell about this, naming the conversation of Putin with the people an “in-house event” of the company. «NG» was able to learn about the platform by the «Kosmos» movie theater, where cameras were set up, only in devious ways. The place of communication with the president was cordoned off by policemen, who, however, tried not to “stand out” on the screens. In principle, anybody at all could take a look at Putin, but as to asking a question – hardly likely: a close-packed circle made up of government officials and blue-collar workers formed around the anchorman. In a miraculous manner, the microphone was brought to the mouths of just those proletarians who asked the president about friendship between peoples and about the “Putin Plan”. As to the journalists filming what was taking place, from time to time they would be approached by some kind of people who would menacingly ask why they were doing this at an “in-house event” and sternly threatene that if this did not cease, then Konstantin Protopopov (the head of the SGTRK) would remove all outsiders.In Kazan, two busloads of OMON troops were holding the kremlin in a cordon since morning, having closed off all access points to where those who had been hand picked and made ready for the direct link with president Putin awaited their moment. The moment, by the way, came earlier than Kazan went live on the air. The television people had earlier recorded five questions against the background of the Annunciation Cathedral in the kremlin, which allowed the president to expound on inter-confessional accord in Tatarstan, and rushed off to the studio. Despite the fact that Kazan aired on videotape, slip-ups could not be avoided. Viewers of the direct link with the president could see how laboriously the invalid Roza Sharafutdinova talked her way through a memorized text. According to the information of «NG», the questions to the president were prepared by the press service of the president of Tatarstan. True, the president’s press secretary, Ayrat Zaripov, did refute this information, declaring that the GTRK [State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company] of Tatarstan had concerned itself with this. “At least with technical support”, clarified Zaripov, refusing to name the organizers of the direct link. Kazan viewers also noticed yet another point that was not insignificant against the background of the discussion of inter-confessional peace in Tatarstan – the crowd of extras that had been selected for the direct link was represented only by Tatars.Survey prepared based on the materials of «NG» house correspondents in the regions: Tatiana Dvoynova (Vladivostok), Vera Postnova (Kazan), Alexander Svechnikov (Novosibirsk), Vladimir Terletsky (Ekaterinburg).