Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during his extensive, traditional end-of-the-year press conference that he will abandon his United Russia Party and run as an independent in next year’s presidential race, taking time to insult his opponents as rabble-rousers who will foment chaos in Russia.
Even without United Russia, Putin said he expects “broad support from citizens.” He currently enjoys an 80 percent approval rating, according to Reuters.
Putin is facing opposition from longtime anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny – likely barred from the 2018 elections on charges he claims are retribution for speaking the truth about the Putin regime – and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, who questioned Putin in the room during the conference on Thursday, among other minor candidates.
Putin compared his opposition to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, currently a stateless activist organizing peaceful assemblies against corruption in Ukraine.
“The political environment, like the economic environment, needs to be competitive,” Putin told more than 1,600 reporters assembled for the conference. He appeared to lament that none of his opposition fit the bill. “It’s important not to just make noise on public squares and speak about the regime,” said Putin. “It’s important to propose something to make things better. But when you start to compare what the leaders of the opposition are proposing, especially the leaders of the non-systemic (liberal) opposition, there are a lot of problems.”
Among those candidates was Sobchak, a reporter for Dozhd TV, who asked Putin to justify his government’s longstanding policy of imprisoning opposition, as well as the mysterious deaths of several prominent dissidents.
“Everyone knows that being an opposition politician in Russia means being killed, jailed. Why is this the case?” she asked, according to the Moscow Times. She also brought up charges against Navalny for embezzlement, calling them “fictitious.”
“What are you proposing that is positive?” Putin asked Sobchak. Of the protests against him, Putin stated, “We don’t want Russia to become a version of Ukraine. We don’t want that.”
Putin did not note that the current chaotic state in Ukraine is partially due to his invasion of its eastern border and the expansive allegations of corruption against President Petro Poroshenko. He did make the claim that “there is no difference” between Russians and Ukrainians, the Moscow Times noted, an argument Moscow made to invade and colonize Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Instead, citing Poroshenko foe Saakashvili, Putin asserted, “I’m sure the majority of Russians don’t want that and won’t allow it.”
He added, “What Mikheil Saakashvili is doing is spitting in the face of the Georgian people, and of the Ukrainian people. … My heart is bleeding, it’s so sad to see.”
“How do you still tolerate that?” Putin asked the audience. “Saakashvili was president of a sovereign Georgian state. And now he is running around in Kyiv and shouting that he is a Ukrainian.”
The president then appeared to compare Saakashvili to Navalny without mentioning the latter’s name – instead referring to a “convicted individual” – asking reporters, “Do you want such [people] to destabilize the situation in this country … for us to have attempts at coup d’etats?”
Navalny has released a presidential election platform despite being banned from running.
Mikheil Saakashvili’s term as president of Georgia was marked by a decisive pivot away from Russia and towards the West – as well as Putin’s 2008 invasion of two of Georgia’s provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Poroshenko later invited Saakashvili to govern Odessa, Ukraine, and weed out corrupt officials but stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship and banned him from the country after Saakashvili alleged that Poroshenko himself was corrupt.
Saakashvili now faces charges of colluding with Putin, which he vehemently denies.
Saakashvili ultimately entered Ukraine with the help of a crowd, who pushed back border patrol officers, in September. Last week, Ukrainian police attempted to arrest him, only to have hundreds of supporters pull him out of a police car and free him. A final successful arrest only led to a hearing in which a judge ruled the charges against Saakashvili were insufficient to keep him imprisoned.