Vladimir Putin says it's 'not my job' to create rivals for his 2018 election bid, as he hosts annual press conference
Vladimir Putin on Thursday slammed Russia's political opposition as immature and unable to offer an alternative to his rule at an annual press conference before he stands for re-election in March. During the meeting, which lasted just under four hours, Mr Putin also continued to position himself as the West's main geopolitical foe, suggesting Russia's assertive role in the Syria and Ukraine conflicts will be a major talking point ahead of the vote. “It's not my job to raise competitors,” Mr Putin said when asked why he had no serious challengers in the race. His almost certain win—75% of Russians say they'll vote for him — will keep him in power until 2024, almost as long as Joseph Stalin. Mr 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. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP Ms Sobchak, whose father was Mr 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. 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. With tensions high and no end in sight for Western sanctions, Mr Putin is expected to again strike a defiant stance and stress the more belligerent foreign policy he has forged in recent years. The record 1,640 journalists at Putin's press conference is apparently too many: Journalists are fighting for seats pic.twitter.com/cCgH1yklxu— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) December 14, 2017 Among the victories he can trumpet is that in Syria. On Monday, he made his first visit to the country and declared that he would draw down Russian forces following their intervention in the conflict, which brought Bashar Assad back from the brink of defeat and helped suppress the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). Meanwhile, parliament is set to approve an agreement to expand Russia's naval base in Tartus, showing Mr Putin's intention remain a player in Middle Eastern politics in the long term. TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak and TV Rain host Anton Zhelnov seen ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference at Moscow's World Trade Center Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin planned to spend all of the previous day preparing for what would be his 13th such press conference, due to start at 9am GMT. The year-end press conference is known for pageantry, including the colourful signs and stuffed animals journalists wave to catch the attention of Mr Putin or his press secretary on stage. Only specially selected publications are given the chance to ask a question. "Someone is holding a sign 'Putin bye-bye'" Putin says. It actually says "Putin babai," or "Grandpa Putin." 1st joke of the press conference pic.twitter.com/bPIsPVKgOS— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) December 14, 2017 The event is also legendary for its length, the record being four hours and 40 minutes at the 2008 press conference. When in a good mood, Mr Putin sometimes likes to banter with journalists or show off his trademark salty humour. This year's press conference set a record for attendance: 1,640 journalists were accredited. 'It's not my job to raise competitors' The first questions of the press conference were about the president's announcement he would stand for re-election. “Why are you running for president?” radio station Govorit Moskva asked. Mr Putin responded that he “wouldn't like to talk about my platform,” but said vaguely he wanted to develop infrastructure, healthcare, education and high tech and raise incomes. He wasn't able to get off that easy, however, because the online tabloid Life News asked why he doesn't have any strong competitors in the race. Putin about why he has no real competitors in next year's election: "That's the main problem of those who want to be competitive opposition... they need to present real issues, that people will believe in" State TV of course has nothing to do with it pic.twitter.com/QAFXHUhrrX— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) December 14, 2017 The subtext was that anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has been barred from running. “It's not my job to raise competitors,” Mr Putin said, noting that Russia had seen huge growth in GDP and incomes during his 18 years in power. He said the opposition “shouldn't make noise in the streets,” hinting at the street protests Mr Navalny called in dozens of cities across Russia this spring. “That's the main problem of those who want to be a competitive opposition … they need to present real issues that people will believe in,” he said. Mr Navalny was among those live-tweeting the press conference, lampooning softball questions and Mr Putin's rose-tinted answers. After Mr Putin argued that the opposition should offer real alternatives rather than street protests, Mr Navalny tweeted the electoral platform he published on Wednesday. “This is what the non-parliamentary opposition is offering, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” he wrote. “You're just trying hard not to notice.” Mr Putin also said he will run as an independent, a logical move given that his personal popularity is higher than that of the ruling United Russia party. The party is headed by PM Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008-12 before giving up the seat to Mr Putin in a maneuver to avoid the constitutional two-term limit. Mr Putin then batted away a question about whether over-reaching security officials were the real traitors to the country. “You love to provoke with you traitors and fifth columnists,” he said before taking a more staid question about the central bank. The first hour of the press conference were focused on the economy, which is expected to return to moderate growth after flagging under low oil prices and Western sanctions. Putin will 'defend the honour' of its athletes in civil courts After an hour-and-a-half of questions about the economy and the election, Mr Putin's press secretary shifted the conversation to sport. Last week, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for its systematic doping, saying its athletes would have to compete under a neutral flag. Mr Putin argued that Russia was the victim of double standards and said the government would bring lawsuits in civil courts to “defend the honour” of its athletes who had been banned for doping violations. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow Credit: AFP “It's strange, some people are getting an advantage, some are allowed to take these medications and others are not,” he said of the exceptions made for some athletes with pre-existing conditions. Asked about whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping lab, Mr Putin said he had “psychological problems” and “worked for American special services”. Mr Rodchenkov and his sister had been guilty of doping themselves, he added. “It's hardly strange that he barked about the doping suspicions,” Mr Putin said. He said Russia's international competitors were “having a hard time, so they're putting pressure on us”. Allegations of collusion with Trump campaign are 'Spy-mania' The first foreign journalist to be allowed a question, an ABC News reporter asked Mr Putin about his relationship with Donald Trump and the investigations of Russian collusion. The Russian president immediately began praising his American counterpart, saying the growth of the US market shows the investors' confidence in Trump. “He spoke about improving relations with Russia, it's obvious that even if he wanted to he couldn't because of the apparent obstacles,” Mr Putin said. “That's probably about it.” Putin on collusion with Trump: "This is all made up by people who are in opposition to Trump to make his work seem illegitimate." On Trump team meetings with Russians: "What here is out of bounds and why should this all take an atmosphere of spy-mania?" pic.twitter.com/iKZjrPMS9h— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) December 14, 2017 Yelling over the crowd, the reporter asked for an answer to the second part of his question, about allegations of collusion. “This is all made up by people who are in opposition to Trump to make his work seem illegitimate,” Mr Putin retorted. “What, we need to ban any and all contacts during any election in the world!? They blame our ambassador for meeting him, but this is worldwide practice!” he said. “What here is out of bounds and why should this all take on a character of spy-mania?” Stop 'whipping up' North Korea, Putin warns Asked about North Korea, Mr Putin said Russia doesn't recognise its nuclear status and considers its tests “counter-productive”. But while Russia has condemned the nuclear programme, it has been growing its economic ties with North Korea, replacing some of the trade that China has been taking away to put pressure on the isolated state. Mr Putin placed the blame for the nuclear standoff on Washington, accusing the United States for provoking Pyongyang. He reminded listeners that the United States already deployed nuclear weapons against Japan, “and even then it was unjustified”. Journalists try to attract Russian President Vladimir Putin's attention to their question during Putin's annual press conference in International Trade Center in Moscow Credit: Anadolu “After Libya and Iraq, North Korea doesn't see any other way to survive besides developing long-range nuclear missiles,” Mr Putin said. “Both sides need to stop whipping up the situation. The Americans say they will stop tests, but then they held another one North Korea immediately launched a missile.” “You need to be careful,” he chided Washington. 'No will to bring an end to the conflict' in Ukraine Mr Putin was also asked about the two conflicts that Russia has intervened in recently, annexing Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine and waging an air campaign to keep its ally Assad in power in Syria. A Ukrainian journalist even accused him of “sending troops to Ukraine to kill our citizens,” but Mr Putin again denied that the Russian army was there, despite evidence of two interventions in 2014 and 2015. According to the OSCE, violence in the simmering separatist in eastern Ukraine is again on the rise, reaching 1,000 or more ceasefire violations a day. Mr Putin blamed Kiev for the stalled peace process. “There is no will to fulfill the requirements, no will to bring an end to the conflict,” he said. Sobchak gets her question Mr Putin's would-be electoral challenger Ms Sobchak, who works for the independent channel TV Rain, was finally able to ask a question after about three hours. “Did you also deceive us and you're here not as a journalist?” Mr Putin joked, referring to the previous questioner, who after a long rant about fish prices revealed he was not a journalist but the head of a fish processing plant. Nonplussed, Ms Sobchak asked about the lack of political competition and why Mr Navalny was not being allowed to run. TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak asks a question during an annual press conference by Russia's President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's World Trade Center Credit: TASS Mr Putin responded that Russians were sick of revolutions and cited the protests that former Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili has been holding in Ukraine: “You want dozens of Saakashvilis to run around our squares … and destabilise the country?” “You're running under the slogan 'Against All'. Is that really a positive programme? What are you offering?” Mr Putin told Ms Sobchak. In his answer, he did not say Mr Navalny's name, a word he has long avoiding saying no matter what he's asked.