Moscow, 27 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Before starting to field some of the more than 1 million questions, Putin praised Russia’s high economic growth, calling it a vital factor for stability and higher living standards. Russia’s economic growth, he said, puts it in the league of developed countries. "During the last several years, Russia's annual economic growth has been about 7 percent. This number is higher than the growth indices of many developed countries and transitional economies. Of course we are not absolute leaders but we are certainly among the leaders," Putin said.
Responding to the many questions on social issues, Putin said the government was actively working on improving health care, housing, and education, and fighting unemployment in Russia. Putin also expressed concern over the rise of racially motivated attacks in Russia and pledged to step up the fight against Nazism and fascism. "We will step up law enforcement activities to make sure that skinheads and neo-fascist elements disappear from the country's political map. We will do everything to that end. But, for the excesses that have taken place and are taking place, I offer my apologies," Putin said.
As expected, callers expressed interest in Putin’s plans after his second and last term ends in 2008. Putin reiterated his intend to step down in 2008, saying he would not seek to amend the constitution to be allowed to run for a third term. "I see my task as creating conditions in the country for the long term so that young, competent, efficient administrators come to govern the country. Therefore, I don't think it is appropriate to make any sudden changes to the legislation, especially to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. As far as I am personally concerned, as the military people say, I will find my place in the ranks," Putin said.
Some questions came from Chechnya, where people spoke to Putin directly via one of the dozen video links set up across the country for the occasion. A Chechen woman who said her son had disappeared several years ago asked about abductions in the war-torn republic, in which thousands of people have been kidnapped and gone missing after detention by security forces in the past decade. Putin said work continued to find missing people and bring offenders to justice: "I hope you will agree with me, sometimes is even impossible to determine who is actually behind these crimes: whether these are bandits in disguise or official law enforcement personnel abusing their authority. In any case we will continue to try to find those people who have disappeared and track down those who are responsible for these crimes," Putin said.
The president called for a political resolution of the conflict, saying he attached great importance to the November parliamentary elections. Most questions debated during the show were devoted to domestic social issues. But foreign policy was also discussed.
Putin touched on the dispute over the Kuril Islands, a chain of Pacific islands the Soviet Army seized after World War II that Japan has been claiming. He once again ruled out handing over the islands to Japan. "They are under Russian sovereignty. This is fixed in international law. This is a result of World War II and we are not going to discuss anything in this respect. We are conducting negotiations from this standpoint. We want to settle all disputes with all our neighbors including Japan," he said.
Putin then pledged to defend the rights of ethnic Russians in Latvia, which Moscow says are regularly violated. Speaking to Russians gathered on the rooftop of the Russian cultural center in Riga, Putin also lashed out at Latvia for refusing to permit the broadcast from a Riga square, slamming to decision as "counterproductive." "Let us not feel bad about these people [city authorities]. We were all born in one common big home that was called the Soviet Union and perhaps these birthmarks of the Soviet past, as we used to say, are still on the face of the authorities in some of the countries of the former Soviet Union -- the desire to restrain and to forbid everything. This is counterproductive," Putin said.
Putin also used the opportunity to once more condemn Ukraine's Orange Revolution that toppled the veteran pro-Moscow president Leonich Kuchma. Responding to a request to ease border crossing between Russia and Ukraine, Putin said the Orange Revolution had created a mess that was widening the split between Russia and Ukraine.
See also: More news and analysis on Russia