President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference

President Putin’s press conference on February 1 was attended by over a thousand journalists. Putin answered questions about Russia’s energy exports, Sochi’s bid for the Winter Olympics, corruption in the regions, the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko murders, and the presidential election.

News anchorman: Dmitri Borisov.

Dmitri Borisov: President Vladimir Putin held a major press conference today in the Round Hall at the Kremlin. It was broadcast live for two hours on national television. During that time, Vladimir Putin answered many questions and made a number of interesting statements.

As usual, before taking questions, the President gave a brief report on Russia’s development in the past year. According to Putin, the main objective of the authorities was and is to improve the quality of life for citizens. Real incomes rose by 10% in 2006. The average wage grew by over 13%, keeping ahead of inflation. For the first time in post-Soviet history, the government managed to restrain inflation to around 9%, as planned. Putin said that the main goal is to continue reducing the income gap between rich and poor. However, as Putin said, this should be done by means of economic growth, not by taking assets away and sharing them around. Russia paid off almost all of the former USSR’s debts last year, achieved the world’s third-largest gold and currency reserves, and shifted from a stabilization policy to a development policy.

In answering one of the first questions, the President denied allegations that Russia uses economic leverage, especially energy deliveries, in order to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Vladimir Putin: That is not the case. The Russian Federation has always fulfilled all its obligations in full, and intends to keep doing so. But we don’t have any obligation to continue subsidizing the economies of other countries with huge sums of money, comparable to their entire budget revenues. Nobody does that. Why is it being demanded of us? The agreements we seek with transit countries are aimed at safeguarding the interests of the major consumers. Experts are well aware of that. We used to sign an annual contract with Ukraine, covering both supplies to Ukraine itself and transit to Western Europe. And consumers in Western Europe were always dependent on whether we would be able to reach agreement with our Ukrainian partners. Now we have separated the two concepts. We have established free-market transit conditions. I repeat: experts are well aware of this. And we ought to be thanked for doing it. But instead we’re seeing unfair interpretations of these events. This is being done by the Russian Federation’s ill-wishers. I’m not saying that it’s being done at the state level. But such forces do exist. Those who write about this – they are ill-wishers. So if that’s what you write, you are one of them. But if you present an objective picture of current events, you are not in that category.

Dmitri Borisov: Questions and comments from journalists were very diverse. So were the statements made by journalists.

Maria Solovienko: You have done some very good work in the international arena. Now you and the federal government have come up with a wonderful project for Vladivostok. Our city is to have a casino, and an oceanarium, and 50 planes landing every day, and a bridge to Russkii Island. Sounds like we’ll be living in paradise. But as soon as your visit to Vladivostok ended, the horde descended – consultants, aides, former senators, former deputy governors who have stolen our budget – and they’re already sharing out the 100 billion rubles which the federal government promised us. So tell us – since you know everything, you can do anything – how will you protect us from these bandit thieves? Although you say that you’re working, not ruling, might it be a good idea to introduce direct presidential rule in Vladivostok and the Primorye territory?

Vladimir Putin: There is no need for us to introduce direct presidential rule. We should work together to identify the problems that obstruct national and regional development, and fight them together. As for corruption, there are many ways of dealing with it. We come back to this very frequently. One problem is the development of the media. We know that the authorities are often criticized for restricting the media sometimes. Society criticizes the media for failing to meet the public’s expectationsin terms of content and style. The criticism directed at us and at you is right. But all the same, there is no more effective way of combating corruption than by developing civil society and the media. We should, and we shall, strengthen various instruments for monitoring and criminal prosecution for unlawful activities. But this won’t ever be enough unless you and we can guide society itself toward fighting this vice. In that sense, a great deal depends on you.

Dmitri Borisov: Then the talk turned to the presidential election coming up next year. Vladimir Putin said that there won’t be any successors to the post of head of state. There will only be presidential candidates. Putin noted that he will express his preference with regard to the candidates, but not until the election campaign.

Journalist: When do you intend to name the candidate whom you see as most worthy of becoming the next President? Can we expect you to do so this year? Could this person be appointed to a senior state office? This question is being asked by many voters and investors.

Vladimir Putin: All the necessary people are already doing their jobs. You and we shouldn’t fuss over the upcoming elections – we should work on ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to make an objective choice. I’m a citizen of the Russian Federation too, and I reserve the right to express some sort of preferences, of course. But I’ll only do this during the election campaign.

Dmitri Borisov: Journalists were interested in the future of Putin himself, as well as the future of the presidency.

Journalist: Would you ever want to return to big-time politics? There’s probably some temptation to say that you’re not leaving it, but I think you can permit yourself to be frank.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I can permit myself to be frank – so I’ll say that I’m not going anywhere. That’s true. Think about it. The presidential election is scheduled for early March 2008. Then there will be two or three months for the transition. That will happen sometime in May 2008. So why are you pushing me out ahead of time? I’ll leave of my own accord.

Dmitri Borisov: In responding to a question about last year’s high-profile murders – including journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London – Vladimir Putin emphasized that only the investigators and the courts can determine who was behind this. According to the president, many countries have acute problems with the persecution of journalists. Putin said that the Russian authorities are aware of their responsibility for the safety of reporters and intend to make every effort to protect journalists.

Vladimir Putin: As for the people who are trying to harm the Russian Federation, their identiy is well known. These are people who are hiding from Russian justice for crimes committed on the territory of the Russian Federation, primarily economic crimes. These are fugitive oligarchs who are hiding in Western Europe or the Middle East. I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory. And I’m not very concerned about it. The stability of Russia’s statehood these days enables us to regard this as beneath us.

Dmitri Borisov: Halfway through the second hour of the press conference, the talk turned to the weather. It’s brought many surprises this year. A snowstorm in the Krasnodar territory left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.

Vladimir Putin: What happened here – disruptions in electricity supplies – happens every year. Back when I was working in the presidential administration’s control directorate, I made a visit to Sochi for precisely that reason. The same thing happens every year there: ice accumulates on the wires, the wires break, and so on… But that must not be allowed to affect our plans to hold the Winter Olympics there. As I said, we can now afford regional investment projects larger than anything we could have hoped to do in the past. Sochi is one of those projects. Investment should be around 314 billion rubles – slightly more if the Winter Olympics bid is successful, slightly less if it isn’t, since then we wouldn’t need to build two ice palaces in Sochi, for example. That would be excessive. In any event, however, we shall go ahead with this investment project – for us, for Russian citizens. So that people can have some recreation opportunities in their own country – skiing, Black Sea holidays. We have very few such opportunities at present. In any event, this should be developed – not only for the residents of Sochi, but for the whole country. I have no doubt that if the IOC decides in favor of Sochi, we can certainly cope with preparing all the necessary facilities in good time.

Dmitri Borisov: Media attention remains focused on a controversial case involving the principal of a village school who faces the prospect of a prison sentence because unlicensed copies of computer software were used at the school. Vladimir Putin noted that he doesn’t know the full details of this story, but the authorities shouldn’t treat it as a formality.

Vladimir Putin: Our policy will be aimed at ensuring that intellectual property is protected. Just like in the battle against narcotics, we need to fight the producers and distributors, not the users. So this case should not be treated as a formality. It’s too easy to arrest a user who buys a product in good faith. It’s always much harder to sort out the essence of the problem. But if any amendments are needed to cover flaws in legislation, we’ll consider it. But arresting a person for buying some sort of computer and threatening him with jail – that’s nonsense.

Dmitri Borisov: Vladimir Putin was also asked a number of personal questions. One journalist wanted to know what the President does when he’s in a bad mood.

Vladimir Putin: Bad moods do happen, of course. I usually consult my dog, Connie. She gives me good advice. My wife gave me a good book recently – the poetry of Omar Khayyam. It also contains a great deal that can be helpful in such situations. I recommend it.

Dmitri Borisov: Vladimir Putin’s press conference is still under way. Our next news broadcasts will bring Channel One viewers the highlights.