By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
MOSCOW, Jan. 31 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin described the electoral victory of the radical Islamic group Hamas in the Palestinian elections as "a big blow to American efforts in the Middle East, a very serious blow," but he said Russia would not support any efforts to cut off financial assistance to the Palestinians.
"Our position on Hamas is different from that of the United States and Western Europe," said Putin, speaking at an annual news conference in the Kremlin. "The Russian Foreign Ministry has never regarded Hamas as a terrorist organization. But this does not mean that we totally approve and support everything that Hamas has done."
Russia joined with the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France and China -- and Germany in London on Monday to call on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. In the news conference, Putin called on Hamas to engage with international governments and repeated the call for recognition of Israel's right to exist. But he said the diplomatic process to find a solution to the conflict should not be dominated by the United States.
"I think if we want to deal with complex global problems, we only have to do this together," he said. "And we should not invite certain participants in some or other process to make cats' paws of them," using an expression that means to toy with someone. "We should sit down together and listen and hear what others say, and we should make concerted decisions."
Held in the Kremlin Grand Palace's Round Hall, a vast throwback of a room with a gargantuan chandelier and marble walls, the televised news conference brought together foreign, national and provincial journalists for a marathon question-and-answer session. It lasted 3 hours 26 minutes, a new record for Putin.
Speaking without notes, the president showcased his command of myriad subjects, answering 64 questions. The news conference also provided rare glimpses into the lighter and saltier side of a man who in the West often appears to have the austere and glowering personality associated with his former career as a spy for the KGB.
At one point, for instance, he seemed to be harboring doubts about the durability of the thousand journalists arrayed before him after he had finished a lengthy answer on demographic trends and cited specific payments to hospitals for prenatal care. "Dear colleagues, we have been working for 2 1/2 hours now," Putin said. "I doubt that any of us put on Pampers before coming here. So we need a break."
He then plowed on for 56 more minutes.
Journalists from the provinces, who were invited to Moscow for the occasion, held up signs with the names of their cities so Putin would choose them. "A city with a very good name," he said, calling on a woman from Vladimir, which is about 110 miles east of Moscow.
The subjects covered were as diverse as private ownership of small vegetable plots, pension supplements in the Arctic North and guidelines for the development of gold production in the Far East.
Putin visibly bristled when questioned about some of his critics' statements that Russia is not fit to chair this year's meetings of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations because of the Kremlin's centralization of power.
"There are devoted Sovietologists who do not understand what is happening in our country, do not understand the changing world," Putin said. "They deserve a very brief response: 'To hell with you.' "
At this stage in its development, he said, Russia needs a strong president because it lacks the stable political parties necessary for a parliamentary system. "It is my deep conviction that in the post-Soviet space, in conditions of developing economies, strengthening statehood, in conditions of the formation of federalism, we need strong presidential power."
Putin rejected accusations that Russia was using its vast energy resources as a political weapon to punish such countries as Ukraine that have drifted away from Moscow's orbit and toward the West. Ukraine this month became involved in a bitter dispute with the Russian state-controlled energy company Gazprom over the price of natural gas after the company quadrupled its rates.
"We didn't pick these prices from our noses -- they were based on world markets," he said, adding that the natural gas subsidies Ukraine received from Russia over the past 15 years amounted to vastly more aid than Ukraine ever received from the United States.
Some of the talk was on a lighter note. A Japanese journalist broke the ice.
"When meeting with Japanese judoists at the end of last year, you said that judo meant everything for you," said the reporter from the Asahi Shimbun. "Could you expand?"
"I really like it very much," said Putin, who has a black belt in the martial art. "The judo principle is well-known, at least to those who practice it. Harmony with the outside world and oneself. And second, courage combined with honor -- these are the characteristic features of this martial art. We in Russia will do everything we can to act according to these principles both in politics and in sport."
Shortly afterward, a woman from Nizhny Novgorod practically swooned. "Vladimir Vladimirovich," said the reporter, using the common form of address to Putin, "On behalf of all the blondes in this room, what do you use to look so well? Do you have any special means that restore youth and keep you handsome?"
"If by special means you mean alcoholic beverages, I do not use them," Putin said. "As for narcotics, I have never used them. I haven't even tried them. Never. I have never smoked. I like sports and I work a lot. This always keeps me on my toes. And this is very important for every person.
"And please convey my best regards to all the blondes."