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Russia: Putin's Live Q & A Marks Official Start Of His Re-Election Campaign

Russian President Vladimir Putin's live televised question and answer session today marked the start of his re-election campaign. His candidacy comes as no surprise and outcome of the 14 March election holds little suspense as well. But both Communist and democratic oppositionists brought a touch of suspense to the proceedings, saying they were considering boycotting the elections altogether.

Moscow, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that he would seek re-election -- which came today in the course of a three-hour "talk" with Russian citizens broadcast live on Russia's two main television stations -- was perfunctory and low-key.

"I was planning to do this, to make this announcement, in the next few days, since the official campaign has only just begun. I know there are many questions about this issue. My answer is affirmative. Yes, I will run. I repeat, I will soon make an official announcement," Putin said.

Much of the program was dedicated to a question-and-answer session between the president and his people. Satellite connections set up in town squares throughout the country showed ordinary Russians -- their fur hats pulled low over their ears -- putting their questions to Putin.

One link showed workers on an oil rig in the faraway tundra of eastern Siberia. Another showed the exhausted faces of coal miners. An additional 1.5 million questions reportedly came in by phone and e-mail as well.

A placid and mostly imperturbable Putin pledged to defend Russians abroad, fight corruption, and raise compensation for the families of soldiers who die in military action.

Economic recovery was a major theme in the marathon talk session. Putin accused Russia's powerful oil lobbies of blocking badly needed tax hikes.

"The main threat is dragging behind in economic development. If we don't manage to ensure a certain pace of development for our economy, we will drag behind in all other matters," Putin said.

There were few surprises in the president's remarks. Putin remained steadfast on issues like the war in Chechnya. Asked to justify the continued conflict, Putin said he was fighting to keep the Russian state from "falling apart:"

"They have other aims -- not the independence of Chechnya, but to cut off all regions with dense Muslim populations. And of course we have to fight against this, unless we want our state to fall apart. If this happens, it would be worse than Yugoslavia -- it would be a 'Yugoslavization' of Russia, in its worst form. And there would be a lot more victims. This is what we have to keep in mind," Putin said.

Putin generally appeared on top of his game. But he was occasionally rendered momentarily speechless by some of his questioners -- like an elderly Nizhnii Novgorod resident who asked why Putin agreed to raise pensions for parliamentarians, who already receive six times more than regular pensioners.

But such questions are only a minor inconvenience for Putin, who has little to fear in the runup to presidential elections on 14 March.

According to a poll by Russia's independent VTsIOM agency, almost 72 percent of voters say they would cast their ballot for Putin if elections were held today. Less than 6 percent said they would back runner up Gennadii Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party.

So what does a campaign season mean when the incumbent's victory seems practically assured?

Aleksei Mukhin heads the Center for Political Information think tank: "I think that the campaign will look like a triumphal march by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin through the country. It's clear that he will be re-elected. But they would like for it to happen in the first round. A second round would be considered a defeat, just like if the [Kremlin-backed] Unified Russia had gotten less than 30 percent [in Duma elections]."

Unfied Russia, in fact received 37 percent of the vote -- and the same team of presidential officials responsible for the party's win will be responsible for Putin's campaign.

Pleasing everyone -- or everyone possible -- will be Putin's main election theme, Mukhin says. While some populist, anti-oligarch campaigning is to be expected, observers say there will be little in the way of radical policymaking between now and 14 March. Only then will the "real Putin" be revealed.

Mukhin says there are few things at this point that could damage Putin's path to a new four-year term -- even terrorist attacks or new offensives by alleged Chechen fighters, such as those in Daghestan this week:

"Such things will hardly destabilize [Putin]. On the contrary, they can even consolidate the population even further -- 'See, we need a firm hand. You try to be humane for a bit, but [Chechens] don't understand [that kind of language]," Mukhin said.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov says his party may boycott the March elections altogether unless the state addresses criticism over alleged voter fraud during this month's Duma elections.

The democratic opposition may also forgo the March presidential elections. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinskii -- who has a 2 percent popularity rating -- said he may decide not to run if it seems clear the vote will be conducted in what he called an "undemocratic" manner.

But Yabloko, together with the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) have not yet given up on the idea of uniting behind a single candidate. They are due to announce a decision by the end of this week.

SPS leader Boris Nemtsov called in a question of political life or death: "This is the choice -- either we all follow one another into a mass grave or we find the strength, the courage to come up with a united candidate."

But time is running out.

Candidates whose party did not receive the votes needed to make it into the Duma will have to collect 2 million signatures by the end of January -- a costly and complicated task for the democrats, whose combined electorate in the Duma election was just about 5 million voters.