MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted a little of the secrecy Thursday around his grandchildren and mockingly offered ex-FBI chief James Comey asylum during his annual televised chat with the Russian people.
But the Kremlin strongman appeared rattled when facing tougher questioning from journalists at the end of the four-hour phone-in event, angrily accusing a BBC reporter of supporting jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Putin also refused to be drawn on whether he will stand for a fourth term in 2018.
During the television show aimed at a domestic audience, Putin insisted the latest US sanctions over alleged election meddling are efforts to “contain Russia”.
The US Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve further sanctions against Russia on Wednesday.
“The United States is not our enemy,” Putin said, but he complained of Russia facing sanctions “throughout all of our history” from global partners who fear a “serious competitor”.
He also jokingly suggested offering political asylum to fired FBI director James Comey — who had been overseeing the bureau’s Russia investigation — likening him to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who has asylum in Russia.
“If he (Comey) is persecuted, we would be ready to offer him asylum in Russia. He should know this,” Putin said.
At one point in the carefully choreographed live show, the screen displayed some rather caustic questions from viewers sent in by text message.
“Putin, do you really think people believe this circus with staged questions?” asked one viewer, following reports of secret rehearsals held outside Moscow for people reading questions to the camera.
Close to the end of the show, a presenter read that question to Putin, however, suggesting the producers want to counter perceptions the show is stage-managed.
The president insisted the questions are “definitely not prepared.”
Some of the texted questions to Putin urged him not to run for re-election next year when he is expected to seek a fourth term.
One message said simply: “Goodbye, Vladimir Vladimirovich.”
Putin was asked whether there would be another annual phone-in — implying that he would be in power after 2018 polls.
But he dodged the question, saying enigmatically: “If there is a phone-in, it will be live.”
Attack on Navalny
Asked by the BBC whether he sees Navalny as a political competitor following nationwide protests organised by the Kremlin critic, Putin lost his cool, however.
He told the reporter from the British broadcaster, “When I heard you were from the BBC, I didn’t doubt for a moment you would ask precisely that question because it’s in a certain sense propaganda of the people whom you support.”
Continuing his practice of not referring to Navalny by name, Putin accused him of using “these protests as an instrument for provocations and exacerbating the situation for self-promotion.”
Navalny has been sentenced to 30 days behind bars after being detained on Monday ahead of an unauthorised protest in Moscow against government corruption that saw hundreds arrested. It followed a similar protest on March 26.
The Saint Peterburg courts meanwhile convicted 522 people for their part in the protests, court officials said. Most received fines but at least 50 people were also handed 10-day jail terms.
Putin the grandfather
Cautiously lifting the veil on his closely-guarded personal life, he revealed to for the first time that he has grandchildren, while saying he wants to keep them out of the spotlight so they can grow up “normally”.
The president had talked of having grandchildren to film director Oliver Stone in a documentary released this month in the United States but not yet shown in Russia.
On the phone-in show, Putin said that one grandson was born recently, to applause in the studio, while another is “already in pre-school”.
“The thing is, I don’t want them to grow up like hereditary princes, I want them to grow up to be normal people,” Putin said, explaining the secrecy around his family.
“If I mention ages and names, they would be identified and never left alone.”
Otherwise it was business as usual with Putin talking to young mothers in poor housing and hard-hat labourers, and being introduced to a newborn baby by a doctor.
The president admitted the number of Russians living in poverty has grown in recent years while noting that “the recession has ended” and the economy has seen “modest” growth over the last three quarters.
According to official statistics, last year almost 19.8 million Russians were living below the poverty line — 13 percent of the population.