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Putin, Eyeing Reelection, Holds Forth on Economy and Iran

In a nationally televised news conference, the Russian president seeks to project an image of competence on domestic and foreign issues.

June 21, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Pressing forward a still-unofficial reelection campaign, President Vladimir V. Putin gave a nearly three-hour nationally televised news conference Friday in which he emphasized Russia's economic growth and defended its cooperation with Iran on nuclear energy.

Speaking to about 700 domestic and foreign journalists in the longest news conference of his presidency, Putin sought to project an image of competence on a vast range of foreign and domestic issues.

On key international issues, Putin urged that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat be treated as a major player in the search for peace in the Middle East, warned that countries concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons program should be careful in how they apply pressure, and discussed Russia's relationship with Iran.

"According to the information we have," Putin said, Iran "is ready to fully join all protocols" requested by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to underscore the nonmilitary nature of its nuclear program. Putin said he spoke Wednesday with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami "and he confirmed once again that Iran did not have plans to create nuclear weapons."

Earlier this week, Khatami was reported to have said in Tehran that Iran was prepared to allow wider inspections by the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, but only if the international community recognized his country's right to acquire advanced peaceful nuclear technology. Russia plays a key role in the issue because it is helping Iran build an $800-million light-water reactor in the city of Bushehr, which Washington charges is a cover to obtain sensitive technologies to develop nuclear weapons.

During the news conference, Putin basked in Russia's currently strong economic growth, noting that its gross domestic product is up 7.1% in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year. He also claimed that progress is being made toward a political solution to the conflict between separatist rebels and government forces in the war-torn republic of Chechnya.

Yet in an indication of how far away peace remains in Chechnya, a truck carrying explosives blew up in the Chechen capital, Grozny, just hours after Putin spoke. Authorities gave conflicting details, but it appeared that a premature explosion killed two suicide bombers and injured about 34 people. The bomb went off near police offices that apparently were the intended targets, authorities said.

Many reporters from provincial cities and towns across Russia or from special-interest publications were at the news conference, an annual event that this year comes as politics are heating up in preparation for parliamentary elections in December and presidential balloting in March.

Putin is considered a strong favorite to win a second four-year term. Although he insisted Friday that he has not yet decided whether to run, he sounded like a candidate, declaring: "I am with my voters and the people of Russia."

As 105 television cameras captured his remarks in the Kremlin's Round Hall, Putin responded to 48 questioners, including a reporter for a Russian newspaper who suggested that Moscow's "military and counterintelligence officials" had mistakenly predicted that a U.S.-led war in Iraq would "last a long time."

"How would you know what I was briefed about by the counterintelligence officials?" Putin responded, provoking laughter in a press corps not accustomed to leaks at that high a level. The president -- a former Soviet-era KGB man who later headed that agency's domestic successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB -- then drew more laughter by joking that he would ask today's FSB chief "to sort it out with you."

"On a serious note," Putin continued, referring to the course of the war in Iraq, "the analysis of the events was such that it fully coincided -- and I wish to stress it -- fully coincided with the way the events actually developed. Completely. Almost day to day." During the war, Russian intelligence monitored every U.S. missile launch and "every flight of a plane, every hit and miss of a missile, and the likely target," Putin said.

Despite Washington's claims that Iraq might use chemical or biological weapons, Russia expected a quick end to the war because of U.S. military strength, he said. Moscow's opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, he stressed, was based on disagreement over how such conflicts should be resolved -- not on any doubt about who would win.

"We knew the real state of affairs of the armed forces," he said.

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