MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to eradicate spiralling poverty and ensure people were properly housed and paid, in a marathon TV appearance on Thursday that looked like a pitch to voters ahead of a presidential election next year.
Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for the past 17 years, is widely expected to run for what would be a fourth presidential term in March 2018, but was vague when discussing his own political plans.
“I am still working,” said Putin, when asked during his annual televised question and answer session who his successor might be.
“I want to say that the voter, the Russian people should decide this.”
In a sign that an election is near, Putin focused mostly on domestic issues, but found time to joke that he was ready to offer former FBI head James Comey political asylum and to complain about alleged U.S. meddling in Russian politics.
Unlike previous years, some awkward questions surfaced, albeit briefly. “Perhaps you’re tired and you should quit?” read one, which flashed up behind Putin on a screen.
Despite those rare dissenting voices and two big anti-Kremlin protests this year, polls show Putin, 64, would comfortably win another term in office if, as expected, he decides to stand.
But the same polls have also laid bare widespread political apathy, raising doubts about the turnout at next year’s election, as well as serious concerns about everyday issues such as low wages, rising prices and shoddy housing.
Low world oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over the conflict in Ukraine have hit Russia hard since 2014, reducing the amount of money available for domestic needs, a problem further exacerbated by rampant official corruption.
After taking questions from a succession of people living in poverty and squalor, Putin emphasized his own humble roots, recalling how his late father used to scrimp on electricity.
“We have many tasks. The first and the most important is to ensure wage growth. We need to get rid of poverty, get rid of hovels and dangerous housing.”
But Putin also made clear that improvements would be gradual, depend on the pace of economic recovery, and could only be achieved by harnessing digital technology and by making structural changes to the way the country was run.
The number of people living below the poverty line in Russia rose to 23.4 million last year, up from 15.5 million in 2013, according to the World Bank. The bank also said 13.5 percent of Russians live on less than 10,000 roubles ($173.61) per month.
The average wage was higher in rouble terms — 39,253 roubles ($681.47) in April, according to the Federal Statistics Service — but Putin was confronted on Thursday by people who said they or people they knew earned as little as 3,600 roubles ($62.50) a month.
“I’ll have to check that,” said Putin, who fielded almost 70 questions in just under four hours, in an event that Kremlin watchers often liken to a tsar listening to his petitioners.
“We have seen a decline in the real income of citizens in the past few years. And the increase in the number of people who live below the poverty line is especially worrisome,” he said.
Putin looked somber when listening to some comments.
In one exchange, a teacher in Siberia said she was making just 16,500 roubles ($286.46) a month, a sum she said she was struggling to get by on. Putin said he was surprised because the average wage for teachers in her region should be twice that.
In another segment, a woman in the Ural mountains city of Izhevsk told Putin she had to live in unsanitary conditions in a ramshackle wooden house. She said she was afraid the ceiling would collapse onto her children.
Putin said steps would be taken to re-house her and even said he would visit during a visit to the city he had previously planned. “I’ll call in on you,” he told her via video link.
Putin was less forthcoming on the subject of his own family. When asked about his grandchildren, he appealed for privacy, saying he feared being candid on the subject could deprive them of a normal childhood.
Putin avoided mentioning opposition leader Alexei Navalny by name, but made clear he did not approve of an anti-Kremlin protest on Monday which was broken up by baton-wielding riot police.
“I don’t think this is being done to improve the situation in the country but to resolve personal questions linked to self-promotion,” Putin said of that and other protests.
($1 = 57.6005 roubles)
Reporting by Christian Lowe, Andrew Osborn, Alexander Winning, Polina Nikolskaya, Vladimir Soldatkin, Katya Golubkova, Dmitry Solovyov, Maria Tsvetkova, Polina Devitt, Andrey Ostroukh, Gleb Stolyarov, Zlata Garasyuta, Elena Fabrichnaya, Oksana Kobzeva, Andrey Ostroukh and Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones