MOSCOW — In just one day, roads of a Siberian city were repaired, swindled fishery workers got wads of cash and a child prodigy was invited to go to a Crimean summer camp. One thing made it possible: President Vladimir Putin’s Thursday call-in show where distressed Russians brought their problems to the leader.
Putin’s annual television show has evolved in the past decade from a no-frills call-in program to a four-hour marathon with callers pleading for help and television crews going live from far-flung outposts.
And for one day, things get done.
In the first call, a resident of the Siberian city of Omsk complained about the state of the roads. Within hours, officials in Omsk reported that they had already got down to repairing the road. By Friday morning, the local government reported that it was repairing roads in all of the city’s districts all day and night. Television footage Friday morning showed road workers briskly laying asphalt.
In the Far Eastern city of Birobidzhan, all it took was a recorded video appeal to Putin about the lack of an indoor skating rink for local officials to start scrambling: the governor told local media he would be meeting the boys on Friday to “personally find out what issues the young athletes face.”
In arguably the most gut-wrenching complaint, a group of fishery workers told Putin via a video-link from the island of Sakhalin that they were kept in conditions close to slavery last year when they went to work to a remote island off the Russian Pacific Coast and are now owed millions in back pay.
A deputy prosecutor general immediately flew to Sakhalin while the local governor sat down with the workers after the show. Early on Friday the company’s executive, Alexei Popov, was shown on Rossiya-1 apologizing to the workers, saying that he had no idea they were unpaid. He then handed out wads of 5,000 ruble ($77) banknotes to the workers in a 20,000 ruble payment to each worker.
Child prodigy Ilya Rayevsky may not be owed billions, but he got his problem solved too. The 8-year old complained to Putin that he was too young to get a place at summer camps for gifted children in Sochi and Crimea.
“Ilya, this is a bad mistake,” Putin replied. “It shows that people in charge of this were not child prodigies themselves. We will put it right.”
Hours later, Rayevsky got an invitation from the education ministry to pick the camp of his choice.
Putin’s call-in show is “a form of psychotherapy, an outlet for speaking your mind and shedding a tear ‚Äî there is no other shoulder other than Putin’s to cry on,” leading business daily Vedomosti commented.
The Kremlin on Friday lauded the hasty efforts of local officials to respond.
“We are keeping tabs on it,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We should not demonize official agencies and officials. People are doing their jobs but of course they sometimes fail at it, there is a lot of responsibility and work to do. What is important is the willingness to put things right.”
The sheer idea of the show and how it is executed ‚Äî Putin alone on stage ‚Äî is designed to portray the president as an impartial judge who is not to blame for what local officials are doing on the ground, which helps to keep his popularity high, analysts say.
“In popular perception, the president stands apart from other government institutions that Russians are quite unhappy about,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta said in an editorial on Friday. “There are bureaucrats and ministers who get the rap, and there is the head of the state who is there to calm the citizens so that they don’t ask any more unnecessary questions.”