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Putin promises election to fill his post will be free

At a news conference, the Russian president says he won't back any successor until after the campaign gets going.

February 02, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is due to step down next year at the end of his second term, pledged Thursday that his successor would be chosen in a free and democratic election.

Despite widespread expectations that he will choose a successor who will then become unbeatable at the ballot box, Putin said in a Kremlin news conference that he would not reveal his preference until the campaign began and that authorities must ensure a fair contest. More than 1,000 reporters attended the annual gathering.

"There will be no 'successor' nominated," Putin said. "There will be presidential candidates. It is the duty of the authorities to ensure democratic coverage of their election campaigns and their election positions so that Russian citizens can make a conscious choice."

Putin enjoys popularity ratings above 70%, and his endorsement is widely seen here as key to any candidate intent on succeeding him. A survey last year by the Levada Center polling agency found that 40% of respondents said they would vote for a candidate proposed by Putin, compared with 14% who would favor someone else.

All nationwide television in Russia is either state-run or owned by state-controlled businesses, and most analysts believe that whoever might be the Kremlin's preferred candidate would receive strongly favorable news coverage. Few observers think an opposition candidate would have much chance to overcome that advantage.

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank, said he believed Putin's comments Thursday simply meant that "he truly doesn't know the name of his 2008 successor."

His postelection hopes

"We shouldn't really count on having a free, democratic choice," Belkovsky said. "Various elite groups will still field their own candidates, but only one will enjoy Putin's support."

Putin also said that after this year's parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential election, different branches of government should all be working in the same direction, not competing with one another.

The president cited a famous Russian story of a swan, a pike and a crawfish to illustrate a concept of government very different from the American idea of checks and balances. In the story, the three creatures try to cooperate to pull a loaded cart, but the crawfish scrambles backward, the pike pulls from underwater, and the swan strains toward the sky. The cart doesn't move. Putin compared this to Russia's situation in the mid-1990s, when "various branches of power only sought to satisfy their political ambitions."

After the upcoming elections, power should be "arranged in such a way that it will be able to function effectively and deal with problems facing the country," Putin said.

Putin also commented favorably on the idea of creating a group of natural gas producers styled after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that would attempt to influence prices, a possibility that has recently raised concern in the European Union.

"A gas OPEC is an interesting idea," he said. "We will think about it."

Putin said that Russia was already trying to "agree with Iranian partners and with some other countries" that export large quantities of natural gas on how to "coordinate our actions in the markets of third countries."

He also disputed Bush administration claims that the possible deployment of U.S. missile defense sites in Europe is not a measure against Russia.

"Our military specialists do not believe that the missile defense systems to be deployed in Eastern Europe are aimed at countering the threats coming from Iran, for example, or from some kind of terrorists," Putin said. "Do terrorists have ballistic missiles? The flight trajectories of the missiles that may be launched from Iranian territory are also well known. And they don't have ballistic missiles."

Putin said Russia would respond to the U.S. effort by making its own nuclear missiles even more capable of penetrating such a defense shield.

On dissident's poisoning

Asked about the poisoning death in London last year of dissident former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, Putin said that "only the investigation can provide the answer" to who was responsible.

In a November deathbed statement, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his killing, a charge the Kremlin has dismissed as "nonsense." Both Britain and Russia have launched investigations of the case. The former spy was poisoned by contact with radioactive polonium-210.

Putin, himself a former KGB agent, spoke disparagingly of Litvinenko, saying he had abused his position in the security services by "beating people when arresting them" and stealing explosives.

"He did not know any secrets whatsoever," Putin said. "All the negative things he could have said about his previous employer, he had already said a long time ago."

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