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Putin ‘bares all’ in first Russian president Webcast

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Vladimir Putin took part in the first Webcast of a Russian president yesterday. The ex-KGB agent sat with three journalists, each with a laptop, and answered questions live as they were filtered through. Anyone in the world was welcome to email a question and "no subject is out of bounds" although not many tough ones got through.

The situation - an obvious PR stunt that was carefully controlled despite claims of crazy spontaneity and openness - was run in conjunction with three news sites, strana.ru and gazeta.ru in Russia and bbc.co.uk over here in England. The president's own site also featured coverage at president.kremlin.ru.

The president's Web site was actually covered in one of the questions. Cheeky serfer Andrey Rogov asked: "Don't you think that the official site of the President of Russia does not quite meet the requirements set for Internet projects?" Vlad took it with good grace. "I must frankly admit that I don't see myself as a specialist in this sphere. I like it but I admit that it can be done better. Therefore we can agree right now to announce a competition for improving this project. The conditions will be made known at our council, my council."

So what does Vlad think of the Internet in general? "I think the Internet is a very promising forum for interacting, communicating and obtaining information. It's very interesting. I'm very interested in it, I have to say. Unfortunately, I do not make much use of it myself because of inbred laziness, on the one hand, and on the other hand because I have plenty of other resources - a large staff of aides who do this as a job and provide me with a kind of ready product." To be fair, Mr Putin did surprise a few delegates at the G8 conference when he suggested using email for keeping in touch.

In another question about the Internet, he appeared to give a hidden reference to taking hallucinogenic drugs. It came from some teacher whose pupils had set up a Web site after being given some PCs with Net access. "We now communicate with the entire world, trying to understand it. Do visit us again. Pupils from the village of Kuzkino, Shugunsky District, Samara Region. And they also asked us to show you the site they created and your opinion of it," he said.

Putin replied: "The site is good, but not quite right. I would have included mushrooms and not apples in it. I know for sure that mushrooms there are very tasty because I tried them. I am very glad that they now have the opportunity to use the Internet. I wish them every success in their studies, good results at the end of school year and I would like to send my warmest and best wishes to all residents of the village and to the parents of those pupils." Now if that isn't recognition that Kuzhino grows some of the finest magic mushrooms in Samara, we don't know what is.

The slightly eerie thing about the Web cast was the constant references to journalists. This was clearly to instill a sense of honesty and openness but if someone tells you something too often, if often a good sign that the opposite is true. For example, hard questions regarding the KGB's actions and even Putin's previous career with the KGB were strictly off-limits. Criticisms didn't get far either. And any tough questions that were allowed through stood by themselves - the next question was always a soft one.

This is the great advantage of the Internet to political leaders. One of the journalists on the Web cast actually said: "You know, one of the features of the Internet is that it's impossible to pull the wool over people's eyes here." This is completely disingenuous. The Internet is fantastic for precisely that - it gives the illusion of complete openness and democracy while providing heavy control over the content. Let us assure you there are very good reasons for having journalists (professional questionners) interview such people, rather than questions from the general public.

The main one is that the only useful answers you will ever get out a politician (or CEO for that matter) come from persistent questioning on the same theme by someone who knows all the escape routes and issues surrounding it. Putin, as others have before him, got a fairly easy deal but looked like he was a man of the people.

About 24,000 questions were emailed in total. Twenty-eight were asked.

What about the rest of it? Well, he won't order his wife about - she behaves how she sees fit. Honest of him. He likes Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, Jules Verne and Maupassant. Oh, and if George W Bush keeps insisting on this ridiculous huge money toilet bowl in the sky aka Son of Star Wars then it could jeopardise the entire international arms agreement. So that's good.

Anything else Vlad? "I looked at the screen and found very interesting questions for which we have not had time. Frankly speaking I would love to answer them. I would like to thank you for the opportunity you gave me to get in touch with Internet users. Thank you." ®

Related Links

Transcript: Part One
Transcript: Part Two
Transcript: Part Three
Also, go the BBC's main site to see the Webcast itself

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