President Vladimir Putin told Russians during a nationally televised call-in show Tuesday that he would vacate the Kremlin in 2008 when his second term ends. But he hinted at some subsequent political role when he added, "As they say in the military, I will find my place in the ranks."
While dismissing the notion that he would engineer constitutional changes to allow himself a third term, he responded jokingly to criticism that he had centralized power, taken over much of the broadcast media and shut out political opposition.
"I do not see my goal as sitting in the Kremlin endlessly and having Channels One, Two and Three constantly show the same face, and if someone chooses a different channel, the FSB director would appear on the screen and tell viewers to go back to the first three channels," he said during the nearly three-hour program, alluding to a joke from Soviet times. The FSB is the domestic successor of the KGB, the feared Soviet security service.
"I don't consider it appropriate to introduce any changes in the constitution," said Putin, 52, whose future is the subject of constant speculation here. When pressed afterward by reporters about what post-presidential role he might seek, he said, "Let's maintain the suspense," according to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass.
He dismissed suggestions that he was creating one-man or one-party rule. "The danger of a return to a monopoly of power does not exist," he said.
Some opposition figures were skeptical. "Each time the president said no, I had a growing impression that officialdom wants the president to say yes, so nearer to 2008 the situation could change radically 'at the citizens' request,' " Ivan Melnikov, the Communist Party's deputy leader and a member of parliament, said in remarks to journalists after the broadcast.
Before and during the program, more than a million questions poured in by phone, e-mail and text messaging from across Russia's 11 time zones and some neighboring countries. Via video links, groups of Russians in 12 cities and villages, including ethnic Russians on a rooftop in Latvia, posed questions directly to Putin as he sat in the Kremlin.
By the end, he had answered 56 questions that covered the economy, the conflict in the Russian republic of Chechnya, the country's oil reserves, social benefits and the spread of AIDS in Russia. The ethnic Russians in Latvia, who said they were prevented from setting up a video link on the street, asked for his help in preserving their language and schools.
Putin has conducted such call-ins several times in the past.
Russian media and human rights groups said the questions posed were carefully selected. The leading human rights group Memorial said one of its activists was barred from joining the televised audience in the Arctic city of Vorkuta. Memorial said its co-chair in the city and her husband were assaulted by security guards when they tried to join the invitation-only gathering.
From the outset, Putin emphasized the country's stability and economic growth, its burgeoning gold and hard currency reserves, and his plans to increase government spending in advance of parliamentary elections in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008. Because of soaring oil prices, Russia, the world's second-largest exporter, is swimming in petrodollars.
"All those things taken together create an absolutely stable situation in the country," Putin said. He said this month that he planned to increase annual government spending on health care, housing, education and agriculture by $4 billion.
Putin acknowledged AIDS as a major problem for Russia. "The situation is very serious, but there is no epidemic," he said, adding that funding to fight the disease would be increased 20-fold, to $105 million annually. There are about 330,000 people infected with the virus in Russia, according to official statistics, but AIDS activists and others contend that the true number is closer to 1 million.
Turning to the country's richest resources, Putin said he believed that Russian oil and gas reserves may be underestimated. "There is actually more of it than we think, and these reserves will be enough for us and for future generations," he said. According to the energy giant BP, Russia has the world's largest gas reserves and is sixth in oil reserves.
In a question from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Putin was asked about the wave of kidnappings in the republic and neighboring areas. "We'll continue to look for those who have gone missing and those guilty of these crimes," Putin said, acknowledging that corrupt law enforcement officials could be responsible for some of the crimes.