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Putin suggests he will remain a force after leaving office

In a televised Q&A, the Russian president says he will abide by term limits but envisions a new influential role.

October 26, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

Moscow — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday reaffirmed his intention to leave office in 2008 at the end of his second term as required by the constitution, but suggested that he might continue to wield influence.

The Russian leader's comment was taken by some observers as an indication that he might seek to exercise power from another position, such as prime minister, or that he envisioned a role such as that played by Deng Xiaoping after the late Chinese leader retired from his official positions.

Putin's statement came during a live, nationally televised session of nearly three hours during which he took more than 50 citizens' questions, submitted via telephone, video feed, the Internet and text message. The annual event has become a key means for Putin to project an image as a leader responsive to his people.

"Although I like my job, the constitution denies me the right to run for a third term in succession," Putin said in response to a question about Russia's fate after he leaves office.

"But even when I no longer have governing power and the levers of presidential rule," he continued, "I think that without adjusting the fundamental law to my personal interests, I will be able to keep the most important thing that anyone engaged in politics should cherish: that is, your trust. And using that, together we will be able to influence life in our country so as to guarantee its progress and exert influence on what is happening in Russia."

Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said she interpreted Putin's remarks as an indication that he was "seriously pondering" an attempt to move into a kind of unofficial paramount leader role modeled after Deng.

"The way I understood him, he doesn't want to become a party leader, a constitutional court chairman or parliamentary speaker," she said. "He knows that all these positions in today's Russia are miniature compared to the presidency. That is why he is really thinking about laying down a new tradition in the style of Deng Xiaoping."

In his wide-ranging comments, Putin also defended a rapid increase in Russian military spending, implicitly criticized U.S. handling of nuclear negotiations with North Korea and warned Georgia not to try to regain control of two pro-Russian separatist regions through use of force. He expressed satisfaction with the state of Russia's economy, which has averaged about 7% annual growth since he took office in 2000, and said the country must reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Although the annual event is designed to give some appearance of spontaneity, critics say it is stage-managed to present Putin in the best possible light.

Some questions posed via Internet and cellphone messages were presented by the studio hosts, and others chosen earlier and read by Putin himself. They were among more than 2 million questions that were submitted, organizers said.

The questions via video feed came from small groups of people gathered in village or city squares around the country, together with correspondents. Some correspondents made comments implying that questioners had not been pre-selected, then walked straight to some individuals to give them the microphone. Questions dealt with everything from international relations and domestic policy to concerns about crime, gambling and education.

"Putin quite confidently played the role of 'the good czar,' " said Mikhail G. Delyagin, chairman of the Institute of Globalization Studies, a Moscow think tank. "In conditions where democracy in Russia is curbed in many aspects, Putin talks directly to the people, as if asking, 'What lack of democracy?' And people must accept this as proof of real democracy, and another proof that no one in the foreseeable future can run this country better than Putin."

One questioner asked why the country had boosted military spending. "Who are we going to fight against?" she asked. "Our relations with the United States are good, aren't they?"

Putin first replied that "it is hard to please everybody" because in previous events of this nature he was asked why Russia wasn't paying more attention to its army. He went on to say that the military budget is now 3.5 times what it was in 2000, but that American defense spending is 25 times that of Russia.

Putin said Russia was secure despite spending much less than the U.S. and China, mainly because of military technology retained from Soviet times.

Asked about North Korea's Oct. 9 test of a nuclear device, Putin cited Russia's support for a United Nations resolution condemning the test, and described the Pyongyang government's action as "impermissible." But he also took an apparent jab at Washington, suggesting it had taken too tough a stance in negotiations.

The international community should try to understand why the nuclear test occurred, Putin said.

"I think one of the reasons is that far from all the participants in the negotiating process were able to find the right tone during those talks," he continued, in apparent reference to the U.S. and some other participants in six-party talks that include Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

"One should never drive the situation into an impasse," he said. "No party should ever be put in such a situation where the only way out is the aggravation of tensions."

North Korea is now signaling its readiness to return to the negotiating table provided that its national security interests and ability to develop civilian nuclear power are ensured, Putin said.

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david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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