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Putin Denies Line of Succession
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Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday promised a democratic election for the presidency, saying there will be only "candidates" for the post, not "successors".

"There will be no successors, there will be candidates for the presidential post, and the task of authorities is to secure a democratic way of coverage of their election campaigns and statement of stances so that citizens can make a choice," Putin told a press conference in the Kremlin.

Putin, whose second term as president will end 2008, has repeatedly vouchsafed he would not seek a third term.

He made the remarks while answering questions at a marathon annual news conference lasting three hours and 31 minutes.

He told reporters in the Kremlin's Round Hall: "I reserve the right to express my preferences but I will do it only during the election campaign".

Looking relaxed and confident, Putin joked with reporters, hailing Russia's economic might and striking a notably conciliatory tone in remarks about Russia's former Soviet neighbors and recent antagonists Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.

But in remarks likely to concern European governments who depend heavily on Russian gas imports, Putin for the first time commented favorably on the idea of creating an OPEC-style group of gas producers.

Russia, the world's top gas producer, has recently been in talks with fellow gas powers Iran and Algeria.

"Gas OPEC is an interesting idea," Putin said. "We are trying to coordinate our efforts in third country markets. We do not intend to set up a cartel but we will continue to coordinate our activities bearing in mind the key goal of serving the energy security of our customers."

The Russian president also sharply criticized US plans for an anti-missile shield based in Central Europe to shoot down hostile incoming rockets.

Washington's arguments about needing protection from Iran and terrorists were unconvincing since neither possessed long-range ballistic missiles, he said.

The US plan directly affected Russia and would prompt a "highly effective" response from Moscow, he added. Russia was already testing military technology which would make the missile defense system irrelevant, he said.

Energy not political weapon

Putin rejected Western criticism that Russia wields its vast energy resources as a political weapon to reward allies and punish countries failing to toe the Kremlin's line.

Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in January 2006 and briefly halted oil deliveries to Belarus last month. Both stoppages occurred following rows over Moscow's attempts to reduce energy subsidies to its former Soviet neighbors.

"We are always told that Russia is using its ... economic resources to achieve its foreign policy aims. This is not the case," Putin said. "Not only did Russia grant sovereignty to these republics, it provided enormous subsidies ... for 15 years. Fifteen years is a sufficiently long period of time. It cannot go on forever."

Closing the gap

Putin said that although Russia's GDP reached US$1 trillion last year, its main priority was still to raise living standards.

Russia's rapid and unpredictable road to capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen huge disparities in wealth emerge between billionaire businessmen and dirt-poor peasants eking out an existence in shrinking villages.

"Everything has to be subordinated to raising living standards and the quality of life," Putin commented. It was vital to "narrow the gap between wage earners".

Quizzed about the high-profile murders last year of two Kremlin critics, former spy Alexander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Putin said he did not believe in conspiracy theories and hoped police would solve both crimes.

(China Daily via Xinhua and agencies, February 2, 2007)

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