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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 21:36 GMT
Putin 'not running away' from Russia
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press conference
Mr Putin's annual news conference is a marathon, not a sprint
"In my day, I did judo, not athletics. I'm not planning to run away anywhere."

President Putin was answering one of several reporters who tried to get him to give away his plans for when he leaves office.

His judo training must have helped as he embarked on his annual news conference.

It has never been a brief affair. This year was a record - three hours and 32 minutes. It required all the stamina and mental agility of martial arts.

Not every question was an attempt to throw him.

The Russian press - many of them, on this occasion, from the far-flung regions of the world's largest country - are often more deferential than their western counterparts.

Holiday invitation

Some correspondents took the trouble to pay compliments before they actually asked anything.

One lady, in a sailor-style outfit perhaps inspired by the port city of Vladivostok where she hailed from, told Mr Putin he was "incomparable".

Another asked if it was too late to wish Mr Putin a "Happy New Year".

One reporter invited the Russian president to her home town to go skiing.

Russia's growing might as a global energy supplier means that more and more people have an interest in what he has to say.

The recent message from the Kremlin - both publicly and privately - has been that they want to run their relations with their former Soviet neighbours on a purely market basis.

That way, they hope finally to bring to an end the rows which have continued since the break-up of the Soviet Union a decade and a half ago.

In early 2006, it was a dispute with Ukraine; 12 months later, a row with Belarus.

Russia's critics have accused the Kremlin of abusing its new power - and using its resources as a weapon.

Image problem

Mr Putin suggested it was his detractors who were politically motivated.

A man watches Russian President Vladimir Putin's press conference
A 24-hour news channel is part of an image transformation

"We see malicious misinterpretation of what's happening from people who are ill-intentioned towards Russia," he said.

"It's not coming from governments - but there are people who are doing it."

Mr Putin's advisors must have hoped that his marathon question-and-answer session would go some way towards improving his administration's image.

Last year was supposed to be a triumph, but it ended with Russia's international reputation at a post-Cold War low.

Russia held the presidency of the G8.

Rising oil and gas prices were bringing in massive revenues.

In May, Russia hired a US public relations company to help it silence its doubters.

A 24-hour TV channel, in English, had gone on air a few months before.

His domestic supporters - and in Russia they are many - will have found much to reassure, inspire, and even amuse them

But 2006 ended with Russia not only accused of bullying, but even murder.

The Kremlin media service was forced to deny time after time that Russia had anything to do with the death in London of Alexander Litvinenko.

Most people in Russia believe that the reasons for Mr Litvinenko's death are more likely to be discovered among the Russian community living in exile, and that was the view which Mr Putin gave at his news conference.

Keep them guessing

His domestic supporters - and in Russia they are many - will have found much to reassure, inspire, and even amuse them.

He left both Russia and the rest of the world guessing over his future plans.

The Russian constitution limits him to two terms in office. His second and final term ends in March next year.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that whichever presidential candidate Mr Putin supports will win.

This didn't feel like a news conference given by someone who is about to leave public life.

Listing Russia's achievements, Mr Putin also admitted its shortcomings.

"We still have a lot to do in the social sphere," he admitted in his opening remarks.

The "we" intriguingly suggested that if he no longer remained a member of the team, he would still be close to it - whether the game was athletics, judo, or running Russia.

Profile: Russia's secret police
21 Nov 06 |  Europe
Putin's hold on the Russians
30 Jun 06 |  Europe

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