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‘Candidate Putin’ makes first appearance at annual press conference

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold an annual press conference Thursday in his first major public appearance since announcing he would seek a new six-year term in March 2018 elections.

The marathon event has in the past lasted up to almost five hours and this year will be attended by more than 1,600 journalists.

The president typically answers questions on a broad range of topics — from foreign policy to the state of provincial roads to his private life — and receives televised requests from the far corners of Russia.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin planned to spend all of the previous day preparing for what would be his 13th such press conference, due to start at 0900 GMT.

Analysts said the event would give a clearer idea of what to expect from Putin ahead of an election in which he is widely expected to extend his rule to 2024, making him the country’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin.

“It will be the start of the election campaign: he will have to demonstrate the result of his work and make election promises,” Russian political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.

According to a survey published by independent pollster Levada on Wednesday, 75 percent of Russians would be prepared to vote for Putin in March, despite having yet to hear any campaign pledges since he announced his candidacy last week.

Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999, will face a handful of token opponents at the ballot box.

One of these is Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite turned liberal TV presenter who many suspect is running as Kremlin “spoiler” candidate to split the opposition and boost interest in the polls.

Sobchak, whose father was Putin’s political mentor and who is rumoured to be the president’s goddaughter, will be at Thursday’s event as a journalist for opposition channel Dozhd and is expected to be allowed to ask a question.

Putin’s main challenge will be to convince Russians to vote at all in an election in which he is widely expected to win. According to Levada, only 28 percent of Russians said they were certain to vote in March.

– Success in Syria –
The President is expected to highlight Russia’s military campaign in Syria, where he intervened on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2015.

On Tuesday, Russian state television showed round-the-clock footage of Russian soldiers returning home after Putin’s surprise trip to Syria on which he announced a partial withdrawal of troops.

“Russians are generally against war and Putin will try to show that the situation is normalising, that the army is strong and that he is once again a winner,” said Kalachev.

Independent analyst Evgeny Minchenko agreed, saying Syria was a “good pillar for Putin’s image” — especially compared to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which had disastrous effects for Moscow.

“Comparatively, there was little blood spilled among Russian servicemen (in Syria). The army demonstrated a high level of readiness, more than the Americans did,” said Minchenko.

Focusing on the end of the Syria campaign would allow Putin to downplay the country’s international isolation following Western sanctions imposed on Moscow since 2014 for its role in the Ukraine conflict, said Russia expert Alexander Golts.

– Babies, football –
Putin is also expected to reassure Russians on domestic issues, particularly on the economy which is returning to growth after a financial crisis following a crash in oil prices and Western sanctions.

“The main domestic topic will be economic reform: he wants to demonstrate that stability is possible even under Western sanctions,” said Minchenko.

Putin, who recently announced new monthly handouts after the birth of a first child in response to an ongoing demographic crisis, is also expected to weigh in on social issues.

The president has also traditionally used sport to encourage optimism among Russians and, with the country hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup, analysts said this year would be no exception.

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