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Russia: Putin Press Conference Low On News, High On Charm

Two women in Ivanovo watch Putin's press conference on television (ITAR-TASS) February 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin today delivered his annual marathon press conference at the Kremlin -- a yearly ritual since he came to power in 2001.

The tradition of holding giant press conferences dates back to the times of former President Boris Yeltsin.

But Putin can be credited with turning these events into a media extravaganza. This year, a record 1,232 reporters were accredited to the press conference, which lasted a full 3 1/2 hours.

MORE: Coverage of this event in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"This was a typical campaign speech organized maybe not for himself but for the person who will succeed him," one analyst said.

The first half of the event, during which Putin fielded dozens of questions, was broadcast live on two state-run television channels.

Sending Signals

Aleksei Venediktov, the outspoken editor in chief of Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station, told RFE/RL that journalists and ordinary citizens are not alone in wanting to watch the annual news conferences with an eagle eye.

"Such press conferences are, in my opinion, an adjustment [tool] for a great number of people, including government officials," Venediktov said. "Through these press conferences, Putin conveys his vision for the coming year on a wide range of issues. He gives signals to what is referred to as the 'Russian bureaucracy,' and he gives signals to foreign partners and opponents alike, which is extremely important."

The press conference gives Putin a platform not only to outline policies, but also to showcase his detailed command of statistics and his skill at fending off tricky questions. As in previous years, he started his speech with a long list of figures celebrating Russia's steady economic growth.

A Softer Image

On the whole, Putin -- known for his occasionally sharp tongue -- struck a conciliatory tone that many observers saw as an attempt to soften Russia's image. Moscow's reputation has been hurt during the past year by bitter rows with some of its former Soviet neighbors and by growing criticism over its human rights record.

A television store in Rostov-na-Donu today (TASS)

Putin admitted Russian authorities could do more to combat the rise of racist attacks in Russia and played down the fierce rows that have pitted Russia against Georgia and Belarus.

He also praised the work of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was slain last October in Moscow. His remarks in the aftermath of her assassination, minimizing the significance of her often critical reporting, shocked many observers.

Mark Urnov, the head of the Ekspertiza think tank in Moscow, says Putin's upbeat tone might have to do with the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in December 2007 and March 2008.

The media event, he says, resembled more a campaign speech than a press conference.

"This was a typical campaign speech organized maybe not for himself but for the person who will succeed him," Urnov said. "The emphasis was on successes, and almost all the difficult issues facing the country were only briefly mentioned. This is the classical logic of a campaign speech. I think any politician in any country would have presented it precisely in this manner."

As expected, Putin was grilled on who will follow him in the presidency. Under the Russian Constitution, he must step down after his second term ends in 2008.

Russia's next leader, he said, will not be a "successor," but the choice of the people in democratic elections.

Spats With The Neighbors

Urnov says such sunny pledges far outnumbered statements on hot-button issues. This year's bitter conflict with Georgia, sparked by the brief detention in September in Tbilisi of four Russian officers on spying charges, was discussed only briefly.

Putin answering questions at today's press conference (TASS)

"The Georgian issue was addressed in this way: 'Yes, we had several practical difficulties that are being resolved. We are doing everything to normalize the situation,'" Urnov said. "Concerning relations with the West, an American journalist noted that relations have hit their lowest point since 1985. Of course, the president failed to comment on the state of these relations."

Putin, however, did not fail to lash out at those he says unjustly attack his country from abroad.

He angrily rejected suggestions that Russia is using its vast energy reserves as a political weapon and said the energy price hikes that Russia imposed on former Soviet countries were justified.

"We're not obliged to subsidize the economies of other countries," he said, branding critics of Russia's energy policy "ill-wishers."

Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center, also thinks Putin's annual media event bears little resemblance to a traditional press conference.

"This event shouldn't be regarded as a press conference in the strict sense, because press conferences are part of the arsenal used by journalists to call the authorities to account on behalf of society," Lipman said. "In the format of this annual event -- which I would rather call a gala-presentation by the head of state -- it's impossible to ask questions about current political decisions and current affairs in the country, because it happens once a year and there are simply too many people present."

The conference is indeed an occasion for Putin to a polish his image as an open, competent, and, at times, even charming president.

Looking relaxed and confident, Putin cracked jokes and flirted with female journalists, drawing applause and rounds of laughter.

Replying to an invitation by a female journalist to her city of Murmansk, Putin mischievously asked whether the invitation was "personal."

Reporters also learned that Putin turns to his Labrador Koni and to 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam when he is in low spirits.

Russia Beyond 2008

Russia Beyond 2008

President Putin is mulling his political future (epa)

THE 2008 QUESTION: President Vladimir Putin's second term of office ends in the spring of 2008. Since the Russian Constitution bars him from seeking a third consecutive term, this event threatens to present a crisis in a country that has a history of managed power transitions. Already, Russian politics are dominated by the ominous 2008 question.
RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a briefing to discuss the prospects of Putin seeking a third term. The featured speakers were RFE/RL Communications Director Don Jensen and political scientist Peter Reddaway of George Washington University.


Listen to Don Jensen's presentation (about 16 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Listen to Peter Reddaway's presentation (about 35 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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Former Premier Kasyanov Announces Run For President


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