On December 23, Russian President Putin held his traditional annual Q&A conference with journalists. This year, the conference was delayed for one day because of the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey. On Thursday, December 22, President Putin took part in the funeral ceremony to bid farewell to Andrei Karlov in Moscow.
The first question to Putin was about the current state of affairs in the Russian economy. The President offered to compare the macro-economic indicators of 2015 and 2016. "In 2015, Russia's GDP declined by 3.7 percent. This year, the decline will be about 0.5-0.6 percent. In November, there was even a slight growth reported," Putin said.
According to him, the growth in November and the reduction of the inflation rate was based on the growth in a number of sectors of the Russian economy, such as agriculture.
Putin also stressed that gold and currency reserves of the Central Bank have increased in 2016 too. At the same time, Putin admitted that the real income of the population has dropped. "The demographic trend remains positive, even though the birth rate has fallen slightly, but the death rate has decreased," Putin also said.
Answering questions about recent corruption cases in Russia and the assassination of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, Putin stated that he was following the investigation into Nemtsov's killing. "We follow all controversial cases, including the assassination of Ambassador Andrei Karlov," Putin said. In most high-profile cases, no matter how long their investigation may last, all circumstances are eventually revealed, he added.
When asked whether Putin had spoken with former Minister for Economic Development Ulyukaev after his arrest (the minister is suspected of large-scale bribery) Putin said that he had not spoken to him in person. Yet, the materials of the criminal case that was filed against Ulyukayev, allowed Putin to dismiss the official from his job in connection with the loss of confidence. It will be up to the court to make all other adequate decisions on the case Putin added.
Another journalist asked Putin where the Russian budget was going to take the money in 2017, including for the purpose to implement Putin's May decrees from 2012.
"One can be answering your question till morning comes," Putin said. "With regard to the budget, we proceed from very conservative settings - $40 per barrel," he said. According to the president, the expenditure part of the budget will be reduced, while "National Defense" will be the main section of expenditure in 2017.
A reporter from The Wall Street Journal wondered whether early presidential election could be possible in 2017. "In which country?" Putin ironically said. When the journalist specified that he was talking about Russia, Putin replied: "It is possible, but not advisable."
The WSJ journalist also asked Putin about Russia's nuclear weapons. Putin assured in response that Russia was acting in strict compliance with all international agreements on nuclear forces, including START-3.
"We do not conceal the fact that we have conducted extensive work to modernize missile forces, naval and air forces," the President said.
Putin also repeated the words about the strength of the Russian army that he said on December 22 at a board meeting of the Ministry of Defence. Even though he does not question, for instance, the power of American arms, Russia is stronger than any potential aggressor, the President said.
When asked about the integration of the Crimea in the Russian economy, President Putin said that the issue of integration was a very complicated one legally and economically.
Ship-repairing and shipbuilding, chemical industry and agriculture are most promising industries for the region, Putin said. To support agriculture, the government assigned three billion rubles, which marked a tenfold increase in funding since 2014.
A journalist asked Putin whether he had any discussion with other world leaders about the content of the new world order.
Putin noted that in the United States, Democrats have lost not only the US election, but also the elections to the Senate and Congress. The President noted that the outgoing US administration was suffering from systemic problems. Therefore, they try to ascribe all their failures to external factors.
When asked about the current doping scandals in sports, Putin stated firmly that there was no state support for doping in Russia. Putin said that he did not feel entitled to evaluate the activities of the WADA, however, he stressed that the work of any anti-doping agency should be transparent and verifiable.
"It is not clear why all this is being done behind closed doors. There is a certain political constituent in all this," Putin said.
Speaking about Grigory Rodchenkov - the man, who started doping investigations against Russian athletes, Putin stated that Rodchenkov was making people take those drugs. "He would always bring that stuff and make people take them. If someone would refuse to take them, he would remove those people from competitions. When he was put on his heels, he escaped. Why didn't he continue struggling here?" Putin wondered.
A BBC correspondent reminded that many in the West accuse Russia of sponsoring hacker attacks. The journalist asked Putin if he could confirm Russia's interference in the US presidential election. He also wondered whether Putin was concerned about the possible start of a new arms race.
According to Putin, the arms race started when the United States pulled out from the ABM Treaty. "It was not us who came up with this. We have to response to challenges from the USA in the field of nuclear arms race, but Russia is doing it strictly within the START-3 agreement, without violating anything," the president said.
As for hacker attacks, Putin said that no one knows who arranged cyber attacks on the US. The President noted that it was not important, because the losing party is just looking for excuses, he added. "The country where those hackers came from is not important. It is the information that they have exposed that is very important. Instead of bringing apologies to electors, they [US Democrats] started looking for an enemy in the face of those who masterminded those cyber attacks, but this is not the most important thing," Putin said.
Putin then gave the floor to the journalist who was holding "Ukraine" poster in her hands. When the Ukrainian journalist asked Putin about Russia's occupation of Ukraine, Putin said: "It would be good if residents of the Donbas would not consider the Ukrainian army their occupants."
The killing of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was an attempt to undermine Russian-Turkish relations, the president said. "Frankly, I was skeptical about the thesis, according to which our warplane was shot down without orders from the Turkish administration, but from the people who wanted to harm the Russian-Turkish relations," said the president.
"Now, after the attack on our ambassador, which was committed by an employee of special forces, I am changing my mind on this. I think that everything is possible. The penetration of destructive elements into government agencies, including law enforcement agencies and the Turkish army is profound," the president said. "We can see it happening. Will it hinder the development of the Russian-Turkish relations? No, it will not," he added.
According to Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as the Iranian administration, have played a big role in the regulation of the crisis in Aleppo. It would not have been possible to regulate the conflict without the participation of Russia, he added.
A journalist from Poland asked Putin about the investigation of the crash of the aircraft of the Polish president in Russia in 2010. The journalist also wondered whether Russia wanted to see Europe weak.
Answering the first question, Putin called for an end of all speculations on this subject. "All is clear, why speculate? It was a terrible tragedy, one should not use it to exacerbate international relations," the President said.
Regarding the second question, the head of state stressed that Russia needed a strong partner. He also said that Russia was not interested in interfering in European internal problems.
A German journalist asked Putin about the strained relations between Russia, the EU and the USA. Russian President emphasised that Russia simply responded to the sanctions from the West. "It was not us who initiated the deterioration of the Russian-European relations. We did not impose any sanctions," he said.
Putin said that it was the crisis in Ukraine that ruined Russia's ties with Europe and the USA, but Ukraine's European integration process was drawing out to a great length after the change of power.