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Putin launches undeclared re-election bid
June 20, 2003

Russian President Vladimir Putin toyed with voters Friday by saying he had not yet decided to run for re-election while laying out a broad platform that clearly signalled that he intended to head Russia for years to come.

Looking ahead to presidential elections in March, Putin painted a rosy economic picture and pledged to carry through domestic reforms, while fiercely defending his country's foreign policy and insisting a political solution to the Chechen conflict was at hand.

Yet in the middle of the marathon annual Kremlin press meet, Putin coyly told the 700 journalists seated before him and the millions of Russians watching at home he had not yet decided whether he would stand for re-election.

"I have not said that I am going to run for president. This is premature," he said.

"The elections are next year and I have other things to do before then," said Putin, confirming his image of a hands-on and active leader that clashes with that of his often ailing predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

No real challenger to Putin exists -- the closest is Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who trails way behind the incumbent president in the latest opinion poll, getting just 14 percent of intended votes versus Putin's 48.

Many analysts have begun to wonder what will happen to Russia once Putin, who rules the vast country with a strong hand, steps down.

Some say December's parliamentary vote may help answer that question -- but Putin assured lawmakers too that the country's power lies in the Kremlin.

"I think that in some countries a parliamentary republic works and works effectively --- but this is not for Russia," he said.

"There is no alternative to a presidential system of a power. Anything else would be unacceptable and dangerous."

Putin answered a barrage of questions for two hours and forty minutes, taking the majority from regional newspapers -- allowing him to cater to an electorate that, while regularly giving him a 70 percent approval rating, has major concerns about the country's poor socio-economic record.

"Social sector reforms are going along, but very slowly," Putin said.

"This is the question that most affects the people -- the social sector is in a shoddy state," he conceded.

Yet most people here tend to give Putin credit for Russia's successes -- it's unflailing position against the United States regarding Iraq and Iran -- while pointing most criticism at Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's government.

Putin defended the premier by saying Kasyanov -- who survived a no-confidence vote earlier this week -- "isn't working badly."

"There are many questions, many problems and things could be better, but the government's performance must be said to be satisfacory," he said.

Observers said Putin opposed the no-confidence motion, wanting to avoid political upheavals ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Putin spelled out a series of reform projects that would extend well into a second term, saying "we have certain plans for the nation's development and principles of making the economy and social sphere stronger."

"They extend beyond the bounds of 2008 -- we cannot afford to set tasks limited by certain deadlines," he said.

Putin vowed to press ahead with elections in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya as well as reforming the country's military and its unpopular draft process.

He made bold statements regarding Iran and the Middle East -- asserting that Iranian President Mohamed Khatami had assured him Iran was not developing nuclear weapons, while insisting his country's support of embattled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

And he resounded a decidely upbeat note on the economy -- singing the praises of a high growth rate and relatively low inflation, while capital was flowing back into the country after years of flight.

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