Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#3 - JRL 7231
Putin puts on a show for the press

It looks like the Russian media have already found the answer to the question ''Who is Vladimir Putin?'' At the traditional annual press conference in the Kremlin on Friday, which lasted for almost three hours, Putin answered a total of 48 questions and only two of then concerned Putin the person.

This years conference was organized much like the previous ones Putin answered the questions he had chosen beforehand and did it at an almost mechanical rate. He quoted the most unexpected statistics, like what share of the countrys potato harvest is being grown in private land plots, and made several clever and well-chosen jokes. Just like last year, about one hour before the conference ended, Putin started acting more like the host of a TV show and personally pointed at the journalists whose questions he wanted to answer. 22 questions of the 48 were asked in this way.

The Russian leader touched on a variety of issues ranging from the possibility of a state monopoly on sturgeon and caviar to ruling out any suggestion of the capital moving back to St Petersburg.

More importantly he backed his under-fire government, giving a fair bill of health to his prime minister, who survived a parliamentary move to oust him earlier this week, saying the government's performance was ''satisfactory''.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whose popularity has sunk because of plans to raise power and gas tariffs and overhaul communal services, survived a no-confidence vote in the lower house last Wednesday. But he was dealt a slap in the face as more deputies voted against his government than for it.

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

Putin also said a target he set last month for economic growth, measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to double within the next 10 years was achievable. ''The development of other countries shows this task is fulfillable,'' said Putin, though he recognised that the target had been set high for an economy that is heavily dependent on the oil sector.

He also praised the country's acceptance to the Financial Action Task Force on money laundering (FATF). ''This organization is involved in the fight against the laundering of dirty money. Russia's entry to this organization is a good sign an acknowledgement of Russia's efforts in this field.''

Staying on an economic theme, Putin said that in 1999 annual capital flight from Russia totaled $24.8 billion. In 2002 it was down to $11.2 billion by preliminary figures, calling this ''a good sign. It shows that terms are gradually being created in Russia for investment''.

Putin also said an optimal decision for all sectors of the economy should be found through dialogue between big business and the government. "This does not mean that we should let businessmen influence the country's political life through their group interests," he said. For this purpose, there are democratic institutions such as parliament, the courts, and the mass media, he said.

''I am absolutely convinced that the much talked about equal distance between various business representatives and the authorities has been achieved in our country in the past few years,'' Putin said. ''Today, those who disagree with this position, as they used to say, 'are no longer with us','' Putin said.

Widely expected to ease to a second presidential term, Putin was acting somewhat coyly when he refused to confirm that he would take part in next Marchs election. Nevertheless, he was adamant that the presidential style of government, and no other form, is suitable for today's Russia. ''I believe that for the Russia of today, with its numerous ethnic and religious groups, no kind of government other than a presidential republic will do.''

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