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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 18:00 GMT
Analysis: Putin rebuffs critics
By Steven Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

Russian President Vladimir Putin
President Putin has beefed up the Kremlin's powers
In a slick and supremely confident presentation to more than 900 journalists, President Vladimir Putin set out an optimistic vision of Russian realities, as well as the country's place and role in the world.

The Russian economy was his main theme.

Mr Putin highlighted the country's success in achieving high growth rates, boosting incomes, reducing inflation and paying off foreign debt.

He pledged to further reduce, when prudent, what is already a low tax burden. And in remarks that may help assuage the fears of foreign investors, he said there would be no more state interference in the big industrial sectors.

Touching on the major international issues, Mr Putin had little to say on Iran.

But he appeared to distance himself from the US and EU over policy towards Hamas in the wake of its victory in the Palestinian legislative elections.

While they say foreign funding for the Palestinian Authority should be dependent on recognition of Israel and commitment to peaceful aims, Mr Putin said he believed cutting off funding at the moment would be a mistake.

Georgia tensions

There were tough words for some of the former Soviet countries - Georgia and Ukraine in particular.

What have we heard and seen from the Georgian leadership? Just insults against us
President Putin
Mr Putin condemned what he said were anti-Russian policies pursued by the Georgian leadership, stressing that ordinary Georgians, many of them working in Russia or surviving on cash from relatives working in Russia, suffered as a result.

He also said Ukraine should pay for the extra gas it had taken from Russian export pipelines.

But there was cautious support for Uzbekistan, widely condemned internationally over its human rights record. Mr Putin said change, when needed, should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

But he did add that he would like to see democratic values develop in Uzbekistan.

Georgians queue for gas near Tbilisi
A shortage of Russian gas meant misery for many Georgians
Perhaps the most surprising remark concerned Belarus.

Mr Putin conspicuously stressed that Russia would not support any political figure "at any price", apparently alluding to his close ally, the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. This is the man Washington accuses of running an "outpost of tyranny".

Mr Putin said support for Belarus was based on centuries of uniquely close links.

Scorn for Western critics

He was scathing towards those in the West who have called for Russia to be excluded from the G8 over what they see as undemocratic practices and restrictions on basic freedoms.

He insisted that none of the other members wanted Russia excluded, and branded critical foreign voices "hardline Sovietologists", suggesting they were somehow ignorant of Russia's new realities.

Mr Putin's comments on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were strikingly moderate in tone.

In parts of the state media, their activities and those of foreign intelligence services have been deliberately conflated. Russian NGOs fear this is a deliberate strategy, approved from the very top, to undermine and eventually destroy them.

Mr Putin merely insisted that their financing be transparent, and that they not be used, as he put it, as political instruments.

Looking ahead to his own, post-presidential future, Mr Putin denied rumours that he plans to enter the world of big business after leaving office.

In particular, he said he lacked the character and experience to run Gazprom, Russia's gas giant.

And despite the growing speculation that the Russian leader is slowly grooming a successor from among the "siloviki" - army and security services officials - he downplayed the conjecture, saying he did not know who he would like to see follow him into the Kremlin.

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