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Putin backs his PM, coy on re-election plans
June 20, 2003
By Ron Popeski

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a pat on the back to his embattled prime minister Friday and vowed to ease the drudgery of millions in a masterful performance in his unspoken bid for re-election.

But, within hours, Chechen rebels had stolen the limelight from him with a truck bomb attack on a government building in Chechnya that killed the two suicide attackers and wounded dozens of other people.

Fielding questions at a marathon Kremlin news conference as politicians gear up for parliamentary elections in December and a presidential contest next March, Putin made plain he saw improving living standards as the key to political success.

In a virtuoso performance he appeared confident and relaxed as he wisecracked with journalists in a style rarely seen by Kremlin leaders, though he demurred over whether he would stand in 2004 for a second four-year Kremlin term, as is widely expected.

His eye was clearly fixed on re-election however as he vowed to make good on his pledge to double the size of the economy within a decade, keep the country on an even keel and stop business tycoons from running economic policy.

And he offered a qualified defense of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who Wednesday survived a no-confidence move in the State Duma lower house.

"Of course, I have responsibility for the work of the government but it is headed by the prime minister and he works quite well," Putin said of the vote. "On the whole, the government's activity can be seen as satisfactory."

He acknowledged ministers' unpopularity, focused on raised power and gas prices and plans to overhaul communal services.

"As for criticisms of the government and discontent with its activity, I must say I am not happy with everything," he said.

He praised economic growth of 7.1 percent in the first five months of 2003. "If we continue to develop with these growth rates we will achieve the tasks I set out," he said.

NO COMMENT ON ELECTION

But Putin, far ahead of all rivals in polls, parried three separate questions on his plans to seek a new four-year term.

"It's too early to say. Pre-electoral fuss and passions serve no purpose. I have plenty of other worries at the moment," he said. "When the time comes and the campaign is declared open, I will make my decision."

Putin remained composed throughout his third annual news conference, staged in the style of U.S. presidents. In previous performances, Putin's temper occasionally got the better of him, particularly on Moscow's campaign to defeat Chechen separatists.

This time, he said a Kremlin peace plan in Chechnya, rejecting talks with separatists and holding local elections, had been proven right. But throughout he preserved a tone of moderation and oozed confidence that he was on the right track.

Hours later came news of the bomb blast in the Chechen capital Grozny, apparently the latest suicide bomb attack by separatist rebels.

Putin laced replies with witticisms as he tackled issues raised by reporters flown in from across Russia's 11 time zones. He told his press secretary at one point to stand aside and took questions unassisted.

Asked what he felt most badly about, Putin replied without hesitation: "The poverty of Russians, poor standards of living, low incomes. All Russians have the right to live better."

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