Putin declares intention to hand over presidency

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin, rebutting suspicions that he intends to formally retain power beyond the end of his second term, said yesterday that he wants to hand over the constitutional powers of the presidency to a successor.

Putin's comment was made to reporters after a three-hour televised question-and-answer session with citizens, during which Putin reaffirmed that he will step down next spring.

Putin indicated this month that he might consider becoming prime minister after leaving the presidency. Many observers interpreted the comment as a sign that he intended to become prime minister, and they speculated that he would seek a revision of the constitution to transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister's post.

But Putin's statements yesterday amounted to a declaration that he is prepared to allow his successor to hold the formal powers that are now in his hands.

"I am against cutting presidential powers," Putin said. "In my view, doing that in the near future would be a mistake."

In his annual live broadcast, Putin took questions from selected citizens around the country, fielded telephone queries and answered questions sent by Internet. Many of his answers stressed that Russia's growing economy is bringing higher living standards. He pledged greater investment in infrastructure and maintenance of a strong military.

Putin had sharp words for U.S. policy in Iraq. He said one of America's goals "is to establish control of the country's oil reserves" and implied that Russia must remain militarily strong to avoid a similar fate. He also implied that U.S.-led forces are fighting against Iraq's people.

"You can overthrow a tyrannical regime, like that of Saddam Hussein's," Putin said, "but fighting the people is a hopeless case. Thank God, Russia is not Iraq. Russia has enough arms and people to protect itself and its interests, both on its own soil and in other regions of the world."

Putin said he agreed with President Bush that international troops should not withdraw before the Iraqi government can provide its own security. But to press the Iraqis to reach that goal, he said, a date should be set for a full U.S. withdrawal.

Putin enjoys popularity ratings above 70 percent in opinion polls, but the constitution bans anyone from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. Most observers believe that Russian voters would endorse whomever Putin identifies as his preferred successor.

Putin has made it clear that he wants to retain influence after leaving the presidency, and his remarks yesterday reinforced his interest in Russia's political future.

"In 2007 and 2008 we have parliamentary and presidential elections, and there will be a different person in the Kremlin," Putin said in the live broadcast. "In these conditions it is extremely important to preserve a stable path of development for our state and the continuity of decisions taken in the past few years. ... It is vital that parliament is effective."

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank, said Putin's comments could indicate that he intends eventually to become the head of United Russia's parliamentary faction, a position that would carry considerable influence.

"It's clear that Putin's team will retain its power," said Sergei Markov, a Russian political analyst with ties to the Kremlin. "The people know that although Putin will leave his presidential post, he won't leave politics, and he'll be a guarantor that current policies will be continued."

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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