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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Defends Strong Presidential Rule

MTPutin answering one of 64 questions during his news conference Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin told a packed audience of reporters in the Kremlin on Tuesday that Russia needed strong presidential rule, as political parties were still too weak to form the government, but stayed silent on his plans beyond 2008.

Putin began his fifth set-piece news conference by robustly defending Russia's place in the Group of Eight, then repeated his criticisms of foreign-supported NGOs and demanded action on the endemic hazing in the armed forces.

Among his replies to a total of 64 questions, Putin declared that Chechnya was close to becoming a normal part of the country, lambasted Ukraine for tapping into Russian gas exports intended for Europe and chastised Georgia for blaming the Kremlin over last week's bombing of gas pipelines supplying the country.

As usual, the president appeared to have done his homework as he confidently churned out statistics to brief 560 reporters from the Russian and foreign news media on the country's economic performance and fielded questions on salaries and other state payments.

Asked by Vladimir Kondratyev, a journalist from NTV television, whether he had decided who would succeed him when his term expires in 2008, Putin refused to be drawn, saying only that voters would decide.

"We have a lot of people in Russia ... who could lead the country. The people of Russia will have the final say," Putin said. Putin has indicated on a number of occasions that he has no plans to seek a third successive term in office, and that he considers it his duty to select a successor.

He was quite clear, however, that the country "needs strong presidential rule," given "the developing economy" and the ongoing work of strengthening the state.

Putin also appeared to rule out that he would move into business when he leaves the Kremlin.

"I can hardly take over a business structure," Putin said in response to a question about whether he planned to take over as head of state energy giant Gazprom. "My nature and background do not make me feel like a businessman," he said.

In answer to a question about transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic -- a variation on the succession question -- Putin said that the country's political parties were still too weak to be given the right to pick the prime minister and the Cabinet.

"The formation of all stable political parties is not yet complete. How then can one speak about parliamentary rule? This would be irresponsible," Putin said. "Everything is possible in the future, but in my opinion this should be an issue for future generations. I am against introducing such practices into current political realities."

Kremlinologists have speculated that one way of Putin staying in power beyond the end of his second term would be to turn Russia into a parliamentary republic -- a change that would allow him to retain power as a prime minister appointed by parliament.

On Russia's assuming the chair of the G8 this month, Putin lashed out at those who have said Moscow is unfit for the role, and employed a idiom to suggest that the Kremlin's critics could say what they liked, but had no chance of ousting Russia from the group.

"I know the mood of the leaders of the G8. No one is against our active participation in this club. No one wants the G8 to become a gathering of fat cats," Putin said.

As a country that "is developing socially," Russia understands the problems of developing nations better than any other G8 country, he said.

A number of NGOs, Western think tanks and politicians, including U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, have called for Russia to be expelled from the elite club, citing what they say are the Kremlin's trampling of freedoms.

"Can anyone think how nuclear security problems can be solved without the participation of Russia, a key nuclear power?" Putin said. "Let them talk. ... A dog barks, but the caravan moves on."

In the wake of the spy scandal that erupted last week when the Federal Security Service accused four British diplomats of spying and British intelligence of secretly funding Russian NGOs, Putin acknowledged that nonprofit groups had a role to play in developing civil society, but insisted that NGOs should not be used as instruments in "other states' foreign policy." (See Story, Page 2)

The scandal was triggered by a report on Rossia days after Putin signed off on a controversial law severely restricting the activities and financing of NGOs.

"We support transparent financing so that they are independent and not administered by puppeteers from abroad," he said.

Putin also said the four diplomats would not be expelled.

"Let them stay here and keep their places at the intelligence station. It is pleasant for us to understand that we control these people," Putin said.

Answering a question about the case of conscript Andrei Sychyov, who was beaten at his Chelyabinsk barracks on New Year's Eve and had to have his legs and genitals amputated, Putin said the Army had to tackle the problem of hazing, but said the brutality was also the responsibility of society as a whole.

"That terrible case that took place in Chelyabinsk is under the supervision of the Defense Ministry. That was not only deplorable, but also terrible," he said.

"The Russian Army is part of Russian society, and we are all responsible for the condition this society is in."

Television should also share in the blame, since it showed violent movies, Putin said.

He said that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was preparing measures to reinforce control of the Army, including the formation of a military police force to keep order.

On Chechnya, Putin hailed the rebuilding of the republic's government as one of the most important achievements of his presidency, and appeared to hint at a day when final victory over separatist rebels could be declared.

He said that Chechen law enforcement agencies were fulfilling an important role and sometimes "working more efficiently than federal structures." If the positive trend continued, it would soon be possible "to talk about ending the counterterrorist operation in Chechnya," Putin said.

Turning to Russia's relations with its neighbors, Putin said Ukraine had admitted tapping into gas exports intended for Europe. "I am pleased ... that our partners in Ukraine openly said they were taking gas," he said. "It's important that they pay for that."

Putin did not mince his words on Georgia, either, lashing out at the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili over its suspicions that a Russian hand was behind the explosions in North Ossetia that led to much of the country's gas and electricity being cut off for a week. Putin pointed out that workers had been trying to fix the pipeline in freezing temperatures.

"We only saw them spitting at us," he said, referring to Saakashvili's government. "Georgian citizens should know that such a policy toward Russia will not help improve the conditions of ordinary people."

Putin on Domestic and Foreign Policy

Succession: The president declined to name a preferred successor, saying it would be voters who made the ultimate decision. He declined to specify what he plans to do after 2008.

Parties: The president should retain the power to form the Cabinet and hand over the responsibility to victorious political parties only after Russia completes its post-Communist transition to a full-fledged and strong federal state.

NGOs: Civil society should be developed, but any foreign financing of NGOs must be transparent to prevent foreign "puppeteers."

Espionage: Four British diplomats accused of spying will not be expelled. "Let them stay here and keep their seats at the intelligence station. It is pleasant for us to understand that we control these people."

Weapons: Russia has weapons capable of penetrating any missile defense system and has briefed French President Jacques Chirac on its capabilities.

Hazing: The establishment of military police could help prevent hazing.

Chechnya: "Counterterrorism operations" are nearing an end.

Social Spending: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was put in charge of the multibillion-dollar plan to improve health care, education, agriculture and housing to ensure that the money would not be stolen.

Gambling: The government and State Duma are drafting legislation to regulate this addiction, which is "no less serious than dependency on alcohol and drugs."

G8: Only die-hard Sovietologists could argue that Russia is not democratic enough to belong to the G8. Russia's presidency is an opportunity to advance energy security and keep the G8 from turning into "a gathering of fat cats."

Hamas: Russia has not classified Hamas as a terrorist organization, but the group needs to abandon its calls to destroy Israel.

Uzbekistan: The Andijan crackdown helped avert "a second Afghanistan" in the region.

Georgia: Independence for Kosovo could cause problems for Georgia in its efforts to regain control over its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Belarus: Russia is supporting not Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko but "the brotherly Belarussian people."

Olympics: The government backs Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games and will invest in a modern ski resort there even if the city does not win.

Yeltsin: Former President Boris Yeltsin gave Russians "the most important thing: freedom." Putin said he did not know how he would have acted if he had been president in the turbulent 1990s.