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Putin Fields Questions From American Public on Talk Radio


WASHINGTON — During an unprecedented hour of questioning Thursday night, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin plunged into American talk radio--showing off his dry wit and his contempt for terrorists, expressing optimism about the future of democracy in his country, and thanking Texans for the reception he received there.

His appearance on National Public Radio marked the first time a Russian or Soviet leader has taken questions live on the air from ordinary Americans. And moderator Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR's afternoon newsmagazine "All Things Considered," alternated his own questions with those asked by callers and the 2,000 others who e-mailed queries for Putin.

Putin's appearance at NPR's New York studios was delayed by a tour of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, even though he said his trip to New York was not an official part of his U.S. visit.

"I could not help but come here," he said, "and pay my respects to those who had suffered in this tragedy." He said he inscribed a memorial poster at the scene, writing, "This great city, and the great people of America, will no doubt prevail."

The interview was a blend of present and past. When asked what he thought about President Reagan calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," the former KGB colonel said "that assessment was more of a motto, a slogan of the day, than a long-term policy." But when asked about President Bush's calling Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists "the evil ones," Putin said Bush was "being very mild. I have other epithets."

Even though Putin and Bush have not been able to agree on the question of missile reduction and defense, the Russian leader said the ever-warming relationship between them and their countries will lead to an agreement. "I don't have any doubts whatsoever that, no matter which scenario unfolds, our relationship will not deteriorate. We will be able to arrive at a solution that will be acceptable for everyone involved," he said, agreeing to one listener's suggestion that the United States and Russia work on a missile defense system together.

During the 45 minutes that he took questions, Putin talked about his black belt in judo, rejected the idea of the United Nations brokering a peace in Chechnya and said that he never regretted having worked for the KGB or its successor agency.

"I did my duty, I served my country, and I believe that I did a fairly decent job at that," he said. "However, one must not forget that we lived in an entirely different world then, a world that is no longer here.

"As far as I know, though, in the United States, there is a certain amount of experience where ex-intelligence employees became heads of state," he said, jokingly referring to the first President Bush, who was once director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

NPR officials said they scored the exclusive when Russian Embassy officials contacted Martha Wexler, the network's editor for Russian coverage, a few weeks ago.

"When they came to talk to us," said NPR President and Chief Executive Kevin Klose, "I emphasized we have a very big national audience and [that] the listenership across the country is deeply interested in foreign news."

The network reaches about 15 million listeners weekly with its more than 600 affiliates. It also broadcasts overseas via NPR Worldwide and the American Forces Network.

The Russians specifically asked that Putin be able to take questions from American listeners. NPR's Klose said there were no ground rules regarding the questions, and the choice of callers was up to Siegel, who picked them from a computer screen showing their names and topics.

Siegel and Putin were joined by two translators--one provided by NPR, the other by the Russians. They worked in a studio separate from the two principals, said Bruce Drake, NPR vice president of news and information, to avoid the babble of several people speaking at once into open microphones. The translations were a necessity--Putin is just starting to learn English.

Siegel, who has interviewed President Clinton, the Dalai Lama and other world leaders, said earlier in the week of Putin: "He's one of these people who's leading his country at what may be a turning point. It's a bit like interviewing Gorbachev in 1987."

Putin's NPR appearance mirrors a visit Clinton made to Moscow in June 2000, when he took questions from Russians during a program on the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, since taken over by the state-run gas company. The takeover came after Vladimir A. Gusinsky, the media mogul who owned that station, had been charged with embezzlement, an arrest his supporters called retaliation for his government criticism.

"There's not a great record for supporting independent media," said Klose, a former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. But during Thursday's show, Putin said that the main barrier to a free press in Russia is the immaturity of the country's market economy, which keeps the media beholden to their financial sponsors. But he said that he's confident that the market economy and democracy in Russia are continuing on parallel paths.

"This is an irreversible process. The foundation of the democracy will continue to strengthen, and the market economy will continue to progress," Putin said. "The point of no return is way in the past."

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