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Russia: Putin Gives Final Annual News Conference

A woman in Stavropol watches Putin's final annual briefing (epa) President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual Kremlin conference to more than 1,330 Russian and foreign journalists.

The 4 1/2-hour televised briefing, Putin's last before Russia elects a new president in March, was an occasion for the outgoing leader to sum up his eight years in power -- and flex his presidential muscles one last time.

Putin singled out a robust economy and a new sense of national unity as his main achievements. The 55-year-old leader acknowledged a few shortcomings, citing high inflation and poverty. But on the whole, he gave himself a shining review.

"I am not ashamed before the people who voted for me twice to elect me a president of Russia," Putin said. "All these eight years I toiled like a galley slave from morning till night, unsparingly. I am happy with the results of my work."

As expected, many of the questions focused on his looming exit from office.

The Russian Constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Putin insisted that he was not "addicted to power" and had never been tempted to cling on to the presidency for a third term.

He repeated his backing of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the overwhelming favorite to win the March 2 presidential vote. "This is a person to whom it is not shameful and not frightening to hand the reins of the country," he said, adding that his trusted protege will largely carry on current policies.

Putin also indicated his readiness to accept Medvedev's offer for Putin to serve as prime minister in the next government, but rejected suggestions that he would continue running the country from outside the Kremlin.

Contentious Topics

Domestic matters traditionally take center stage at the annual media marathon, although Putin never fails to address hot-button international issues.

One of those is Washington's controversial plan to deploy parts of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. While the United States says the shield is aimed at countering attacks from "rogue" states such as Iran or North Korea, Russia claims it disrupts the balance of power in the region.

Putin reiterated his threats to retarget Russian missiles at countries that agree to host the U.S. shield.

"Our experts believe that [the antimissile] system threatens our national security and if it appears, we will be forced to adequately react, and then we will be forced to retarget part of our missile-defense system toward these objects that threaten us," he said. "We aren't creating this. We ask for this not to be done, but nobody listens to us."

Putin lashed out at Europe's security and human-rights watchdog, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), for refusing to send representatives from its election-monitoring body, ODIHR, to observe the Russian presidential election.

He rejected ODIHR's accusations that Russian officials sought to restrict its monitors' access to the vote, and suggested that OSCE officials "teach their own wives how to cook cabbage soup" instead of lecturing Russia.

Putin also chastised Western nations on energy issues. He condemned U.S. and European efforts to bypass Russia with alternative energy delivery routes as "incorrect," "stupid," and "unprofessional."

He described NATO's energy policy toward Moscow as "unfriendly" and said European countries should allow Russia into their economies, since Western energy companies are active in Russia.

Putin retained his hawkish tone on another divisive issue -- Kosovo's drive for independence from Russia's ally Serbia -- which he branded "immoral and illegal"

"I don't want to say anything that will offend anyone, but for 40 years the [Turkish] Republic of Northern Cyprus has been existing as practically an independent [state]. Why aren't you recognizing it?" he asked. "Aren't you ashamed, Europeans, of applying such double standards in solving the same problems in different parts of the world?"

He added that Russia is prepared to respond with its own measures should the West chose to recognize Kosovo's sovereignty, but gave no details.

On a more conciliatory note, Putin stressed Russia does not aspire to a return to the Cold War and would resort to deploying its nuclear missiles only in "extreme necessity."

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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