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Russians' worries clash with Putin's TV optimism
By Dmitry Solovyov

MOSCOW, Dec 24 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin was upbeat on Monday about Russia's performance in 2001 in a live television phone-in, but his optimism clashed with ordinary Russians' concerns about low living standards and slow reform.

Putin, whose personal approval rating in opinion polls hovers steadily around 70 percent, appeared tense in the early exchanges, but he regained his usual composure when grilled on Chechnya and Moscow's warming ties with the United States.

In an unprecedented phone-in lasting two-and-a-half hours, Putin fielded questions from across Russia's 11 time zones on pensions, pay, drugs, bribe-taking by officials, homeless children and the international situation.

The programme was later repeated in full during evening prime time by the two biggest national television channels.

Putin showed flashes of his trademark dry humour, turning into a joke a query about how the former KGB officer felt about sleeping at the ranch of U.S. President George W. Bush, leader of a nation seen as Moscow's greatest threat in Soviet days.

"I wasn't very worried about spending a night at Bush's ranch," Putin said with a wry smile. "I believe it was for him to wonder what was going on if he let in a former Soviet foreign intelligence agent.

"But on top of all this, the current president of the United States is himself the son of a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. That's why one can say we were in quite a family atmosphere and understood one another pretty well."

He repeated his view that Bush's decision to withdraw from the 1972 ABM arms control treaty was a mistake, but said it would not hurt Russia's security.

Asked why Moscow had failed to capture any of the leading rebel warlords in Chechnya two years after sending in troops, Putin said the army there could not unleash the firepower which the United States had used in Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, we cannot conduct massive sweeps where thousands of people live. We also cannot send heavy bombers against such places, like in Afghanistan," he said. "We should not forget that people who live there are Russian citizens."

Russia wanted "a neutral and friendly Afghanistan," free of drug factories and terrorist training camps that threatened its security, he added. "That's all. We do not need anything else.

"There is no talk of sending a (Russian) military contingent to Afghanistan," he told one student worried that he might be sent to the country that once defeated the Soviet army.


Hundreds of thousands of calls were registered for the call-in, broadcast on the two state-run television channels ORT and RTR as well as two national radio stations, with live satellite television links from 10 major cities.

Putin appeared well briefed for the event, reeling off a long list of statistics on the economy, average wages, pensions and planned pensions reforms, something unthinkable under his ailing predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian leader, in power almost two years, said 2001 had been "a successful year for Russia," citing industrial output up 5.2 percent and gross domestic product up 5.5 percent.

"Next year our task is to preserve and consolidate all those positive tendencies achieved this year, primarily in the economy," he said.

Putin sought to dispel fears voiced by callers, many earning well below the monthly national average of 3,500 roubles (around $116), that their incomes might be hit by the fall in prices for Russia's vital oil exports.

He also displayed a gift for repartee, telling a disgruntled student from Russia's far east it would be naive to expect quick positive results from a much-discussed utilities tariffs reform.

"It's like someone applying to a cosmonauts' training centre after years of a severe disease and asking for a pill to put him in perfect order," he said.

Putin seemed keen to show he was in touch with the everyday difficulties faced by ordinary Russians, condemning traffic police for bribe-taking, the bane of millions of motorists.

But at times he also seemed to find it difficult to answer those complaining of poor salaries and pensions, asking them to leave their phone numbers so that he could deal with their grievances later.

The president also confessed to mistakes in his youth. As a student during the Soviet era he had earned "outlandish money" of 1,000 roubles, working in the northern Komi region. "I must confess, I did not spend this money wisely," he said with a smile. "I will not tell you how."

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