Putin to quit office in '08

Russian may seek to retain key role in manner of Deng

October 26, 2006|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reaffirmed yesterday his intent to leave the presidency in 2008 at the end of his second term as required by Russia's Constitution, but suggested that he might continue to wield influence.

Putin's comment was taken by some as an indication that he might seek to exercise power from another position, such as prime minister, or that he envisions a role for himself such as that played by Deng Xiaoping after the 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 delivered by telephone, video feed, Internet and text messaging. The annual event has become a way 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 [Putin], 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 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 Russian-backed separatist regions through use of force. He expressed satisfaction with the state of Russia's economy, which has averaged about 7 percent annual growth since he took office in 2000, and said the nation must reduce the gap between rich and poor.

While the annual event is designed to give an appearance of spontaneity in the questions posed by video feed and telephone, critics say it is stage-managed to present Putin in the best possible light.

Some of the questions posed by Internet and cell-phone messages were presented by the studio hosts and others chosen ahead of time and read by Putin himself. They were among more than 2 million questions submitted, organizers said.

The questions by video feed came from small groups of people gathered in village or city squares around the country, together with correspondents. Questions dealt with everything from major issues of 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 the Russian leader why the country had increased military spending. "Who are we going to fight against?" she asked. "Our relations with the United States are good, aren't they?"

Putin replied that "it is hard to please everybody," saying that in previous events of this nature he was asked why Russia was not paying more attention to its army. He went on to say that the military budget is 3 1/2 times what it was in 2000, but that American defense spending is 25 times as great as Russia's.

Putin said Russia is secure despite spending much less than the United States and China mainly because of military technology retained from Soviet times.

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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