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Putin Warns 'Mistakes' Could Bring Back '90s Woes

Two more presidential terms would make Vladimir Putin Russia's second-longest-serving leader behind Josef Stalin.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested that his return to the presidency would impart much-needed stability to Russia, much as it did when he first rose to power at the end of the turbulent 1990s.

The former two-term president made the comments in a prime-time interview on Russian state television.

Putin critics warn his expected return to the presidency could usher in an era of stagnation through 2024 and result in a new squeeze on already-curtailed civil liberties.

But in his first major interview since accepting his United Russia party's nomination last month, the former president said a third term in office would bring much-needed stability to the country -- just as it did when he first took office in 1999.

"When the country is in a difficult situation, when it's trying to overcome a crisis, when it's trying to get on its feet, these elements of stability, particularly in the political sphere, are extremely important," Putin said. "We went essentially through the breakup of a state: the Soviet Union broke up. And what is the Soviet Union? It is Russia, only it had a different name. We went through a very difficult period in the 1990s and only started getting on our feet in the 2000s, established peace inside the country, stabilized the situation. And, of course, we need this period of stable development."

"Everything here is tacked together, both in politics and in the economy," Putin said.

The former two-term leader has long credited himself with containing the lawlessness and economic instability of the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Political opponents and rights activists say stability came at a high price: falsified elections, a rubber-stamp parliament, a tightly controlled media environment, and a clampdown on civil liberties.

In the prime-time interview that was broadcast on three national television channels, Putin countered political opponents who he said claim that "everything is so bad that it could not get worse."

"I would be careful saying that things cannot get worse," Putin said. "It's enough to take two or three wrong steps and everything that was before could overwhelm us so quickly that we would not even have time to look around."

Putin also referred to the country's troubled North Caucasus region, saying, "We still have many problems there," while also admitting that Russia as a whole has problems "with crime and terrorism."

During his presidency, Putin restored federal control over Chechnya in a bloody war marked by widespread and systematic violations of human rights.

The 59-year-old former KGB agent and head of its successor, the FSB, who has sought to cultivate a macho, fearless image through various publicity stunts, also called himself Russia's "most hard-working" leader since World War II.

He said Communist-era leaders were not physically capable and did not have "the will" to run the country as he does.

Instead, he compared himself to former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served four terms during the Great Depression and World War II before the U.S. Constitution was amended to impose a two-term limit.

In the wide-ranging interview, Putin said he "never craved" the presidency, but added, "if I do something, I try to bring it to a logical conclusion or at least do it with maximum effect."

He also acknowledged that he and current President Dmitry Medvedev agreed "four years ago" that Putin could return to the presidency -- a scenario that Russia-watchers have long predicted.

Putin also suggested, as observers have predicted, that Medvedev could take his place as prime minister.

Most analysts considered Putin to have held ultimate power in Russia during Medvedev's presidency, despite occasional public differences.

He said the decision would be made based on how the party fares in December's parliamentary elections.

"If [Medvedev] heads the United Russia party list [in the Duma elections], if the voters support this list and if we can form an effective parliament where United Russia retains its leading positions, then, relying on this parliament and building on this victory, [Medvedev] will be able to form an effective government," Putin said.

The United Russia party has taken a hit in recent public opinion polls and will seek to keep its critical two-thirds majority in the State Duma.

But it is still by far the most popular party in the country.

International observers have also described Russia's previous elections as highly flawed.

Putin insisted that he, too, would have to be chosen by the public.

"[Critics say that] if your humble servant runs in the election, there will be no choice. Maybe there will be no choice for them, but there is always a choice for the average citizen."

On foreign policy, Putin pledged a "balanced" approach, and said Russia wants "neighborly, friendly ties with all our partners."

Replying to a request from his interviewers to comment on Western descriptions of him as a "hawk," Putin said, "First off, a hawk is a good little bird. I am a person anyway. But I am against any clichés."

At the same time, Putin offered a clear message for foreign critics: "You know what, mind your own business."

compiled from agency reports

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