MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin’s annual phone-in marathon was shaping up to be the carefully choreographed affair that Russians are accustomed to, until a string of brazenly defiant questions flashed across the backdrop and below the president as he spoke.
As he fielded questions from select members of the public, the eruption of the highly critical questions offered a seemingly unscripted glimpse into the nation’s mood three days after nationwide antigovernment protests.
“Putin, you [familiar] really think that people believe this circus, with planted questions?”
It was unclear whether the snarky digital comments were intentionally aired or had slipped through the team coordinating the on-screen effects around the broadcast. But after about a quarter of an hour, there was a pause in the question boxes on the bottom third of the screen.
Some people on social networks mused that an opposition-minded state TV producer might have gone rogue, hoisting the pirate flag on state television.
The text boxes later reappeared, although repeating some themes and more sporadically than before the hiccup.
The Direct Line program on June 15 is one of two hourslong live events that have become PR staples of Putin’s presidency — along with an annual press conference for select journalists that routinely runs three hours or so.
In the early spate of combative on-screen texts, more than one contributor challenged Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term in 2012, following a four-year hiatus as prime minister.
“When are you going to stop violating the clause of the constitution about the two-term limit on the presidency?” the questioner asked.
The Russian Constitution prohibits the head of state from serving a third consecutive term — the ostensible reason Putin vacated the Kremlin in 2008, only to return four years later. Critics say the move contravenes the spirit of the constitution, if not its letter.
“Three presidential terms is enough!” another said.
A presidential election is looming in March 2018 and Putin is widely expected to run, but he has not announced a decision.
“All of Russia thinks that you’ve been too long on your ‘throne.’”
Another said: “Goodbye Vladimir Vladimirovich!”
“Maybe you’re tired and you need a rest?”
One sender later appeared to go meta, questioning the disappearance for stretches of the text boxes. “Why can’t we see the ticker all the time? Are the operators specially not showing it so that people can’t see what questions are asked?”
The texts also waded into corruption.
“Is it true Navalny is now making a film about you now?” one said in a reference to Aleksei Navalny, the opposition politician and anticorruption blogger mounting an improbable challenge to Putin and organizer of the major nationwide protests on June 12.
Navalny has galvanized street protests this year, and published a video alleging Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed huge illicit wealth.
“Do your words ‘We never abandon our men’ refer to budget thieves and corruptioneers?” another asked.
The phrase “We don’t abandon our men” has appeared on patriotically themed Putin T-shirts since Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014, when troops entered Ukraine without insignia and took over institutions all over the peninsula even as Moscow repeatedly denied any role.
Putin was offered a chance to respond to the “abandon our men” theme and said, in an apparent reference to corrupt officials, “I don’t consider them ‘my men.'”