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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 September 2007, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Putin ponders future power
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Sochi

President Vladimir Putin and Bridget Kendall
Mr Putin hosts Bridget Kendall and the foreign press at Sochi

The Russian presidential holiday villa near the southern resort of Sochi is not a grand affair.

Once inside the cream-coloured walls, our group of foreign academics and journalists found extensive grounds.

But the greenhouses we passed were full of weeds. And down the hill the refurbished government guest house still had a functional Soviet look about it.

Upstairs the balcony offered grand views over heaving waves on the Black Sea coast.

Next door the president's study, with its bare desk and Russian flag, was an identikit version of the one in the Kremlin... "so he can address the nation from here, and no-one realises he's not in Moscow", explained one aide in an undertone.

Political shake-up

Further up the hill was a vast green shed, housing the press room of journalists in the presidential travel pool.

As in the United States, they shadow their leader wherever he goes; on one day, a trip to a farm where Mr Putin bottle-fed a calf.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov
PM Zubkov - an old Putin ally - might stand for president

And now the arrival of assorted foreigners come to meet the Russian president.

Kremlin press aides lined us up in a long, looping crocodile so that President Putin could walk down the line and shake hands with each of us.

He looked smart in a shiny grey suit and pointy black shoes. Just visible were discreet cuff links, blue enamel with what looked like a tiny double-headed Russian eagle, diamond and gold encrusted.

Suddenly through the door rushed his black Labrador Koni, making straight for the coffee bar in search of dropped crumbs - the only creature present who couldn't care less what the president might say as we sat down at a large rectangular discussion table.

From the start the focus was on Russia's coming political shake-up - who would succeed him when he steps down next March. And what role he would play, once no longer president.

Repeatedly he hinted that he does not want to leave Russia's fate entirely in the hands of his successor

From the start it was clear Mr Putin is deeply preoccupied with what will happen once his term is up and where, longer term, Russia might be heading.

Repeatedly he stressed his achievement in turning Russia's economy from a basket case into a triumph.

But he also voiced worries about the collapsing infrastructure and the need to spend some of the country's up-till-now carefully husbanded stabilisation funds.

They are needed to mend roads and build airports and to somehow extend into the vast empty spaces of eastern Siberia where fewer and fewer Russians want to live, but where untold mineral riches remain barely charted, let alone accessible for export.

And repeatedly he hinted that he does not want to leave Russia's fate entirely in the hands of his successor - whoever that might turn out to be.

Self-image

The field, he said in no uncertain terms, was wide open.

Maybe his new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov - an old and loyal ally - might stand.

But so could five or so others.

Rosneft's Vankor oil field in eastern Siberia
Boosting infrastructure in eastern Siberia may consume key funds

A signal, perhaps, that nothing is decided yet... so no-one should take Mr Putin for a lame-duck president.

"I don't work for him, he works for me," he cut in with telling irritation when one influential member of his Kremlin inner circle was mentioned.

And once out of office, he told us, he still expected to be a figure of some political consequence - "a factor the new president, whoever he is, will have to take into account - he and I will have to work out how to co-exist", he said.

"But I don't want a weak president," he added.

"Having spent the last eight years building up the power of Russia's presidency, the last thing I want is to tear it down with my own hands."

Maybe. But it sounded as though he was putting his successor on notice.

"My main concern," he said, "is to ensure continued stability and growing prosperity. And if Russia veers from that course..."

In that case Mr Putin, it seems, is not excluding standing again in 2012 or 2016... or speaking out to challenge whoever is in power as the voice of the people.

"I admit I have some influence," he told us, and recalled the moral authority enjoyed by dissidents in the Soviet era.

This is a bizarre self image - ex-KGB president turned conscience of the people.

Not a vision of Mr Putin shared by his critics.

And whether indeed Mr Putin will be able to carry on conducting the orchestra from the wings once he is out of power is an interesting question.

Power in Russia usually rests with whoever is inside the Kremlin, not outside.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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