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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Promises a Free Election

MTPresident Vladimir Putin on Thursday listening to a reporter's question during an annual Kremlin news conference attended by more than 1,000 journalists.
With about a year left before the presidential vote, President Vladimir Putin insisted on Thursday that he would not orchestrate his succession and would only back a candidate after the election campaign began.

The election dominated the president's annual news conference in the Kremlin, which also included sharp comments by Putin on U.S. missile defense, xenophobia and the killings of journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko.

"There will be no successor. There will be candidates for the post of the president," Putin said in response to one of four questions he fielded about the March 2008 election and his post-presidential plans.

He maintained he had the right to back a candidate. "I am a citizen of Russia too, and I am proud of that, and I of course reserve the right to voice certain preferences," he said. "But I will do so only during the election campaign."

Under the law, candidates can kick off their official campaigns 30 days before a presidential election.

The president gave a first hint that his preferred choice for president was a senior government official. "Those who need this are already working at their posts," he said enigmatically when asked whether his favorite would be appointed to a high post this year. Last year, Putin appointed two of his confidants, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, as deputy prime ministers in what Kremlinologists interpreted as the beginning of a race for Putin's backing. Political analysts have speculated that Putin might appoint his preferred candidate as prime minister ahead of the election.

Putin made it clear Thursday that he wanted to end nascent infighting in his retinue over which candidate would receive his backing. "We should not be making a fuss about the future election, but providing citizens with an opportunity to make an objective choice, to ensure that citizens have a free and democratic choice," he said.

As at earlier news conferences, Putin dodged questions on what he might do after his second and final term expires. "You guys are killing me," Putin said to one question. "I'll be a human being."

Putin previously has hinted that he will remain in politics beyond his presidency and may occupy a high post, fueling speculation that he might become the prime minister or speaker of the State Duma.

Putin also commented on the Duma elections, scheduled for December, and urged two rival pro-Kremlin parties -- United Russia and A Just Russia -- to exercise restraint in campaigning against each other.

As was the case during his previous annual news conference, Putin's remarks Thursday were mostly a foray into domestic social and economic issues, but he did allot some time to comment on foreign policy and security.

Igor Tabakov / MT
The president replying to a question during the Kremlin news conference.
Putin criticized the United States over a plan to deploy part of its national missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. Washington insists the system is not designed to intercept Russian missiles. "We consider such claims unfounded, and, naturally, that directly concerns us and will cause a relevant reaction. That reaction will be asymmetrical, but it will be highly efficient," Putin said.

He then touted the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile as capable of penetrating the missile defense. He also praised the ongoing development of a next-generation hypersonic vehicle able to conduct multiple maneuvers in flight to avoid missile-defense systems. Interestingly, when commenting on the factors that strengthened Russia's defense capabilities, Putin named Orthodox Christianity and the country's other "traditional" faiths in the same breath as the national nuclear shield.

While criticizing the United States, Putin also sought to defend Russia's image abroad and authorities' conduct in enforcing law and order at home.

When asked to comment on speculation that the deaths of Kremlin critics Politkovskaya and Litvinenko last year were ordered by people wishing to harm Russia's image, Putin said he did not believe in conspiracy theories. Politkovskaya was gunned down in her apartment building in central Moscow in October. Litvinenko died in a London hospital in November after being poisoned with polonium-210. Putin downplayed talk that business tycoons living abroad might be behind the deaths. The tycoons try to harm Russia, but "the sustainability of the Russian state allows us to look down on them," he said.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Journalists from across the country vying for the moderator's attention and the chance to pose a question to Putin.
In line with his previous comments, Putin said Litvinenko had been of no interest to Russia because he had not known any secret information when he died, despite his previous work with the Federal Security Service.

Putin departed from his earlier comments on Politkovskaya, however, saying that it "was good" that Politkovskaya was a "sharp critic" of the authorities. Shortly after her death, Putin described her as a critic of the authorities, but asserted that she had had "minimal influence on political life in Russia."

The president then went on to refer to the murder of Klebnikov, the U.S. editor of the Russian version of Forbes magazine who was shot dead outside his Moscow offices in 2004. Putin said he agreed with the assertion that Klebnikov had died for the sake of democracy in Russia and vowed that authorities would do their best to protect journalists. No one has been convicted in the death, and a retrial of two suspects is scheduled to start Feb. 15.

Turning to xenophobia, Putin said authorities would step up their efforts to enforce tolerance and warned candidates not to use nationalist rhetoric in the Duma and presidential elections.

But he again played into the hands of opponents of immigration by referring to the "native population," even though the country saw major population shifts during its imperial past and is now home to more than 100 peoples and ethnic groups. Putin said xenophobia was partially rooted in a lack of control and regulation over the flow of migrant laborers. As a result, "issues on the labor market often have not been resolved in favor of the native population of Russia."

In addition to fighting xenophobia, authorities should do more to uproot corruption, Putin said. He called a growing number of corruption cases a "good sign," singling out major reshuffles in customs and the law enforcement community last year. Putin fired senior officials at the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service and Prosecutor General's Office as part of a probe into a furniture-smuggling ring.

As at last year's gathering, Putin reserved most of his comments on relations with other countries to economic issues, singling out only Georgia to say he did not mind people interpreting his recent decision to return Russia's ambassador as a victory for Tbilisi as long as it helped normalize relations. He also praised thriving economic and cultural ties with China.