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Putin fields phone-in questions

Vladimir Putin (27 November 2008)
When Mr Putin was president, the broadcast became an annual tradition

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has warned Russians of tough economic times ahead in a nationwide question-and-answer broadcast.

But he said Russia would take firm action - preventing a sharp fluctuation of the rouble, and taking stakes in troubled banks and firms.

He also said he hoped for better ties with the US under Barack Obama.

A Conversation with Vladimir Putin is being filmed at a studio in Moscow in front of a 400-strong audience.

People from across Russia have put questions to the former president.

Last year, a million questions were submitted in advance, the Kremlin said. However, all were screened and none were considered overtly hostile to him.

'In better shape'

This year Mr Putin has touched on economic issues, relations with the US and energy supplies.

He reassured Russians that the current economic troubles would not compare with the collapse of the 1990s.

"It will be a difficult period for the world economy and also for ours," he said.

"We remember that not so long ago in the early 1990s we had problems like keeping the territorial integrity of the country. Industry was in total collapse as well as the social system. Today the country is in a much better shape."

Mr Putin also said Moscow would be forced to reduce gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev did not pay off $2.5bn (1.7bn) debts it owes for gas.

Previous winters have seen crises erupt over the same issue, with Russia cutting supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and threatening to do so again last year.

The prime minister also said there were positive signals that US-Russian relations could improve under President-elect Barack Obama.

"If these are not just words and translate into real actions, we will respond in kind and our American partners will immediately feel this," Mr Putin promised.

Big question

The BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow says it is significant that it is Mr Putin fielding the questions.

When he was president, the broadcast became an annual tradition.

Mr Putin left the Kremlin in May, after being obliged under the constitution to step down after two consecutive presidential terms.

But it is he, not his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who is taking to the airwaves again this year, our correspondent says.

Many will see that as a sign that it is Mr Putin, and not Mr Medvedev, who wields the real power in Russia, he adds.

Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the session, which started at midday local time (0900 GMT), would "certainly last more than two hours" and focus on social issues and the financial crisis.

Some of the questions were published in advance on a government website. Most of them concentrated on the state of the economy.

One asks whether young families will get help with mortgages; another asks why petrol prices have fallen by so much less than oil prices.

However, our correspondent says there is no sign yet of the one question which many world leaders would presumably love to hear answered - whether Mr Putin plans to return to the presidency.

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