Moscow, 17 December 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims of state involvement in the poisoning of dissident Alexei Navalny at an annual press conference which focused this year on the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic troubles.
“Why would anyone do this?” Putin said during the nationally televised press conference, referring to the poisoning.
Putin said Navalny, one of his fiercest domestic opponents over the past decade, having organized several series of mass protests against his leadership, had the support of US intelligence agencies. He did not offer any evidence for the accusation.
Navalny earlier this week said that he had been poisoned in August by a group of Russian national security officers. He said an independent investigative team had been able to establish the officers’ whereabouts based on phone and airline passenger records.
Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden have determined that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. The European Union on Thursday imposed sanctions on six Russian individuals and one organization over the poisoning.
Putin dismissed the renewed allegations by Navalny, saying such claims had been stirred up by sensationalizing media outlets.
Due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, Putin conducted the four-and-a-half hour press conference remotely via video link from his Novo-Ogaryovo residence in the Moscow region, with accredited journalists participating at designated venues in Moscow and several other major cities.
Putin painted a rosy picture of the country’s struggling economy amid the pandemic, beseeching the public not to be upset at him personally over widespread economic hardships.
“I ask our citizens not to be angry at me,” Putin said, reassuring the public that Russia had been adequately coping with the crisis.
Unemployment has grown less than 2 percentage points from 4.7 per cent at the beginning of the year to 6.3 per cent currently, Putin said.
The average salary in Russia is expected to actually grow this year by 1.5 per cent after adjusting for inflation, he said.
Putin, in power as president or prime minister for two decades, positions himself as a guarantor of the country’s stability in contrast with the lawlessness of the post-Soviet 1990s before he came to power.
Russia’s commodity-reliant economy was devastated this year amid plummeting prices for oil and other major exports due to the global economic downturn that has resulted from the pandemic.
Russia’s rouble currency has lost about 20 per cent of its value versus the US dollar this year, from around 61 roubles per dollar in early January to around 73 currently.
Russia has recorded the world’s fourth-largest coronavirus caseload, with more than 2.7 million cases, amid a surge in recent months.
Putin said Russia’s health-care system has fared better during the crisis than other countries’, without specifying. “Our system has proven more effective,” Putin said.
Putin, aged 68, said he would take Russia’s state-developed coronavirus vaccine “as soon as possible,” saying it had so far proven itself safe and effective.
Putin said he was optimistic about British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s plans to combine its vaccine with Sputnik V to create a more effective product.