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Russians to prod Putin on poverty and his personal life as his ratings tank

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Russians are set to ask President Vladimir Putin about growing poverty at home and tensions abroad during an annual televised phone-in Thursday, which comes following a fall in his approval ratings.

The leader is also likely to face a degree of grilling on his personal life, according to questions submitted by the public online ahead of the live show.

Set to be held for the 17th time since Putin came to power in 1999, the show starts at 0900 GMT and usually lasts several hours.

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Ahead of the carefully choreographed show, more than one million questions had been submitted, organisers told Russian news agencies.

Putin will this year respond to the nation as his personal ratings struggle to recover following unpopular moves last year such as increasing the state pension age and hiking VAT.

The programme sees the president swoop in to solve everyday problems of Russians, often taking the time to call regional officials and upbraid them.

He sometimes gives veiled hints on his personal life, a topic of interest to many since his divorce from his wife Lyudmila.

The president could face more critical questioning this year as he no longer commands the soaring ratings prompted by the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, when up to 90 percent of Russians backed him.

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Now two-thirds approve his policies, according to independent pollster Levada.

“The main aim of the phone-in is to show that Vladimir Putin is the chief defender of the interests of the people, that he’s the most humane president and the last hope for justice,” political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.

Kalachev added that Putin could turn a downbeat national mood to his advantage.

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The president positions himself as “the person you can turn to when you are totally desperate and this style impresses many Russians,” he said.

The show’s official website posts questions submitted by telephone or online, with most concerning economic and social issues rather than political ideas.

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Many are about the low salaries in provincial areas, the shortage of state kindergartens and rising household bills.

– ‘Are they taking the mickey?’ –

“How is it possible to live on monthly child benefit of 50 rubles for my child? Are they taking the mickey out of us, or what?” asked one woman on maternity leave.

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As the country faces unprecedented Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, “poverty has become a matter of shame for Russians,” the influential head of Russia’s Audit Chamber Alexei Kudrin said in a recent televised interview.

He estimated that 12 million out of the population of around 147 million live in poverty.

That mood of discontent has spilled over in recent months with large numbers of Russians protesting against local issues such as plans to build a cathedral in a park in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, ultimately forcing authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church to climb down.

As Russia’s relations with other global powers hit a post-Cold War low over its policy on Ukraine, Syria and the long-running issue of electoral meddling in the US, many citizens want to know if the worst is over.

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One asks: “Do you expect improvement in relations with the US and the European Union and what are you doing to achieve this?”

Russians have also submitted a variety of softer questions, such as whether he has time to read and who his favourite writer is. “Why do you wear your watch on your right wrist?” one asks.

“What’s it like being president? Is it hard or not?” another wants to know.

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ABC News had the goods on Jeffrey Epstein years ago — and killed the story

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Multimillionaire predator Jeffrey Epstein died in suspicious circumstances at a Manhattan correctional facility on Aug. 10. The wealthy and powerful New York financier, a convicted sex offender, stands accused by dozens of women and girls of trafficking, rape and sexual abuse. He was an enormously influential and well-connected man who counted as friends billionaire business ownersHollywood starsBritish royals, and even top media figures like Katie Couric and Charlie Rose — with some of his associates falling under suspicion of condoning or even participating in a pedophile ring.

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A powerful earthquake hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Sunday, killing a child, injuring dozens and damaging buildings in an area still recovering from a string of deadly quakes in October.

Police said a rescue operation had been launched at a heavily damaged market building in Padada near the 6.8 magnitude quake's epicentre, which is about 90 kilometres (55 miles) south of the major city of Davao.

Patients were evacuated from hospitals as a precaution and nervous crowds massed outside shopping malls after the jolt and dozens of smaller, but strong aftershocks.

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50 bodies unearthed from Mexican mass grave

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The bodies of at least 50 people have been unearthed from a mass grave at a farm outside Mexico's western city of Guadalajara, local authorities said.

The grim site was discovered just over three weeks ago in Jalisco -- a state hard-hit by violence linked to organized crime.

The local prosecutor's office said Saturday 13 of the dead -- 12 men and a woman -- have been identified and the remains given to their families.

The process of identifying more of the victims and how they died will continue, it added.

A mass grave with 34 bodies was discovered in a suburb of Guadalajara on September 3, while another was found nearby in May with the remains of 30 people.

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