"There will be no successors," Putin said. "There will be candidates for the post of Russian president, and the task of the authorities is to make sure that the [candidates'] election campaigns and their positions are covered [in the media] in a democratic way, so that the citizens of Russia can make an informed choice."
The Russian president, whose second and constitutionally last term expires next year, has said he will not seek to run again. He has consistently demurred on the topic of naming a successor or seeking constitutional amendments that would permit him a third term.
At the nationally televised news conference that lasted for 3 and 1/2 hours, Putin said that he would endorse a candidate during the official campaign ahead of the March 2, 2008 vote.
The front-runners are thought to be Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Touting The Economy
The Russian president also fielded a number of questions on Russia's dependability as an energy supplier.
Putin rejected accusations that Russia is using its vast energy resources for political aims and praised the country's economic growth.
He said that Russian energy policy was based on market rules. He reiterated Russia's assertion that it is fully fulfulling its obligations as an energy supplier.
The Russian president said the country is moving from a policy of economic stabilization to one of development. He acknowledged that the government had much to do to reduce inequalities in Russians' standards of living.
The news conference comes just weeks after a price dispute with Belarus resulted in a cutoff of oil shipments to several European Union countries.
It also follows a year when Russia's Gazprom monopoly dramatically raised gas-import rates in many of the former Soviet states.
Accusations Of Backsliding
2006 was also a year that saw criticism of Russia at home and abroad for perceived backsliding on human rights and freedoms.
Critics say the Kremlin has not done enough to stamp out the growth of violent racist attacks and hate crimes.
Putin admitted the authorities "do not always react adequately to such manifestations." He continued: "As for the causes [of xenophobia], one of the causes, of course, is that despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, our borders have remained open and all former Soviet republics have become independent, while labor market issues [in Russia] have not always been resolved in favor of Russia's native population."
The Russian president also responded to questions about the killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security services officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.
Both cases have received intense international attention -- and, critics say, represent still more evidence of Russia's regression.
Anna Politkovskaya was killed in October 2006 (courtesy photo)
Before being gunned down in Moscow in October, Politkovskaya reported on human rights abuses committed by the Russian military and the pro-Moscow police in Chechnya.
Press watchdogs says she was the 13th journalist to be murdered for her work since Putin came into office in 2000.
Putin said cases like Politkovskaya's are a huge problem for Russia. "The problem of persecution of journalists is one of the most pressing issues for our country and also for other countries. And we understand the degree of our responsibility. We will do everything to protect the press corps," Putin said.
But speaking about Litvinenko, Putin downplayed his significance. A Kremlin critic who lived in exile in London, Litvinenko died in a London hospital on November 23 after receiving a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210. In a deathbed statement, he implicated Putin in his poisoning.
British detectives investigating Litvinenko's death sent a file of information from their probe to prosecutors this week for possible indictments.
Putin dismissed notions that Litvinenko was forced to flee Russia and said everyone must now wait for the results of the British and Russian investigations into his death:
U.S. Antimissile Plans
The Russian president also criticized U.S. plans to set up a missile-defense system in Central Europe.
The United States says the proposed system will target hostile missiles, which the Pentagon says could be fired from Iran in the future. Putin said Iran did not have long-range ballistic missiles and that Russia would come up with an effective response to the system.
Some 1,200 Russian and foreign journalists reportedly registered to attend today's event -- the highest number since Putin held his first such news conference in 2001.