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Candidate Putin Offers Russian Soccer Fans Free Flights To Euro 2012

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (center) drinking beer with soccer fans in St. Petersburg on January 19.
MOSCOW -- Presidential candidates are often accused of making promises they can't keep.

But Vladimir Putin has delivered on one such promise -- and won the gratitude of hundreds of potential voters in the process.

Meeting with a group of soccer fans in his hometown of St. Petersburg on January 19, the Russian prime minister and presidential hopeful suggested that the country's airlines would be happy to provide free transport to the UEFA European Football Championship kicking off in Poland and Ukraine in June.

Since then, Russian carriers Aeroflot and Transaero have confirmed that they will be offering a limited number of free flights to the Russian team's matches. The first, a Group A opener against the Czech Republic, is scheduled for June 8 in Warsaw.

Irina Dannenberg, an Aeroflot spokeswoman, said the company "fully supported" Putin's initiative.

But she said the airline had yet to decide how many flights it would dedicate to a free Euro 2012 shuttle -- or whether any of the flights would travel to Warsaw, where all three of Russia's group-stage matches are scheduled.

Transaero said it will provide a single free flight from Moscow to Kyiv and back -- a trip that might normally cost passengers some $250 or more.

Such a flight would only take place should the team advance to the tournament's knockout stages. It will also offer a special reduced rate to fans for the remainder of the tournament, which ends in Kyiv on July 1. The airline currently does not fly to Warsaw.

Economic Strain On Airlines

Oleg Smirnov, a former deputy civil aviation minister who now heads the nonprofit Partner of Civil Aviation Foundation, believes Putin's magnanimous gesture is certain to put an economic strain on the government-controlled Aeroflot and the privately owned Transaero.

"Nonetheless, if Aeroflot's [majority] shareholder -- and, in this case, the shareholder is the state -- has given its blessing to the idea, then Aeroflot can afford it," he said. "The shareholders of Transaero are unlikely to allow such a move, because it's a private company, with private shareholders. They'll allow only one flight."

In making his St. Petersburg offer, Putin suggested that the positive publicity the airlines would receive in return for offering free flights would more than compensate for lost revenues.

But Smirnov says the airlines may also be hoping to strike sideline deals with fan groups and football managers to book additional paid flights and packages of seats to ensure the venture is not a loss.

Putin's Popular Gestures

Russian sports journalist Oleg Vinokurov maintains that Putin has frequently used his influence to intervene on the behalf of sports fans.

"It would seem that you could get to Ukraine without taking a plane, it's really quite close," he said. "But for some reason the decision was taken to go to Putin in order for him to resolve the problem with the airlines. And he, naturally, resolved it. Who's going to argue if Vladimir Vladimirovich himself said that it wouldn't be bad to take fans there for free?"

Putin's sports-related efforts continue. This week he offered the help of state oil giants Rosneft and Gazpromneft in bailing out the Premier League side Tom Tomsk, which has severe financial problems.

In perhaps the most popular gesture of all, he's also said he'll reconsider the ban on beer at sports stadiums ahead of Russia's hosting of the World Cup in 2018.

Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report