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Russians press Putin on new coronavirus vaccine rules


MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing a devastating coronavirus outbreak in the country coupled with widespread vaccine hesitancy, took to national television Wednesday to field concerns from citizens feeling pressured to get their shots.

In an attempt to persuade them, he even revealed new details about his own secretive vaccination and spoke of how people from his "immediate inner circle" had been sick with the virus.

During Putin's annual "Direct Line" call-in show, in which citizens can submit (largely prescreened) queries for the president, he was pressed by discontented Russians about the rising cost of food, loans for small business, social payments and other domestic issues.

But the hot topic was vaccination, as the event coincided with the recent controversial move by regions across Russia to order 60% of workers who interact with the public - teachers, taxi drivers, salespeople and others - to get vaccinated or find different jobs. The call-in show marked Putin's first extensive comments about the new measures.

Although they make vaccination de facto mandatory for a large swath of the population, Putin said Wednesday that he doesn't support compulsory inoculation. But after a year in which he and other officials claimed that Russia had handled the pandemic better than other countries and lifted nearly all restrictions, Putin stressed the seriousness of the coronavirus.

"The only way to prevent the pandemic from developing further is vaccination," he said. "I hope that the prejudices among people will decrease."

He then made a dig at two Western vaccines - Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca - by claiming that they havethere dangerous side effects. The AstraZeneca vaccine has been plausibly linked to extremely rare but in some cases fatal blood clots. European and U.S. regulators have not linked the Pfizer vaccine to any such side effects.

When Moscow announced the new measures on June 16, just 15% of Muscovites had been vaccinated, according to Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, despite Russia's Sputnik V vaccine being widely available and free. The uptake was worse for the rest of the country, at just 11.5%.

Just minutes before the call-in show began, Russia announced that it recorded 21,042 new coronavirus cases and a record number of related deaths, 669, in the past day.

Putin was then asked whether he had actually been vaccinated, because there were no photos or video of him getting a shot. He disclosed that he had opted for the Sputnik V vaccine, saying "there wasn't a single serious side effect." He added that his daughter was also vaccinated with Sputnik V.

Russia was the first country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine when it approved Sputnik V for mass use in August. But 62% of Russians polled in April said they would not receive it, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling and research institute.

Accordingly, the new vaccine rules have divided Russian society. In Moscow, restaurants and bars have been ordered to limit admission to people with a QR code confirming their vaccination or proof of a negative PCR coronavirus test within the previous three days.

"The actions taken by our colleagues in certain regions are aimed at preventing the need for lockdown, when whole enterprises stand idle," Putin said. "In order to avoid those things, certain regions are carrying out mandatory vaccination of certain categories of citizens."

Putin's "Direct Line" call-in show has been a staple of his more-than 20-year reign - with the exception of last year's coronavirus-related hiatus. The carefully choreographed show lasted nearly four hours. Russians are invited to send in questions to the president, and the Kremlin said it received about 2 million this year.

The goal is to portray a Putin who is deeply invested in Russians' lives, tackling even granular issues during the show and then ordering officials to look into them.

"Putin needs this poor population to demonstrate that he is irreplaceable: only he can fix the roof and fix the gas. Other institutions do not work," analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote on Twitter.

Most of the call-in show focused on domestic issues, but Putin did address Russia's relations with Ukraine and a recent spat in the Black Sea with a British destroyer, which Putin called a "provocation" by both the Americans and the British.

On June 23, Russia said it used bombs and gunfire as "warning shots" to force the HMS Defender to leave waters it claims off the coast of the annexed Crimean Peninsula. The British denied they were fired on.

Putin said the exchange was monitored by a U.S. reconnaissance plane and it was a test of Russian defenses.

Asked about meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the future, Putin replied, "Why meet with Zelensky now that he has fully ceded his country to external governance?" He added that Washington, Berlin and Paris decide "on key aspects of Ukraine's everyday functioning."

Published : July 01, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Isabelle Khurshudyan