Putin talks of 'influence' after '08MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin, a former spy who is powerful and popular after six years in office, said Wednesday that he would continue to "influence life in our country" after his second and final term expires in 2008, but he reiterated that he would not run for a third term as Russia's leader.
Putin, speaking during a live, nationally televised call-in show, added that he had made the decision "even though I like my work." Russia's 1993 Constitution forbids a third term. Despite much speculation about his future, Putin did not elaborate.
The town hall-style show has become an annual tradition in Russian politics under Putin, at a time when many other forms of expression are no longer permitted.
Most of the questions were about bread-and-butter domestic issues, like salaries for teachers and doctors. But Putin also weighed in on rape allegations against Israel's president, warned that Georgia's attempts to regain control of pro-Russian separatist enclaves could lead to bloodshed and chided North Korea for testing a nuclear bomb near Russia's border.
About one million telephone calls, e- mails and text messages poured in; operators screened the calls and Putin answered questions from a few dozen, which were believed to have been carefully chosen.
Early in the 2 hour, 54 minute program, Arkedy Kokayev, a truck driver from the steppe town of Podgorodnya- Pokrovka, asked Putin via video link, "What will happen to us and this country after you leave?"
"Arkady, I think everything will be all right," Putin said, striking a folksy tone. "As for myself, as I have said, the Constitution - even though I like my work - the Constitution does not give me the right to stand for a third consecutive term."
He went on: "I shall be able to retain the most important thing that a man in politics should value: your confidence. And using it, you and I, we shall be able to influence the life in our country."
It was the strongest hint that Putin would remain in politics after 2008.
He has few opponents.
Putin has a stranglehold on power in the Kremlin after abolishing gubernatorial elections, taking over television stations, canceling independent elections to Parliament, jailing political opponents and nationalizing part of the oil industry.
Putin also revisited some puzzling, and puzzlingly coarse, comments he made last week during a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. He spoke about rape and sexual assault allegations against Israel's president.
A microphone inadvertently left on during that meeting reportedly captured Putin saying of President Moshe Katsav: "He turned out to be quite a powerful man. He raped 10 women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We all envy him."
A Kremlin spokesman had characterized Putin's words as a joke that lost its humor in translation. On Wednesday, Putin did not dispute the quote and suggested that journalists simply reported a remark not intended to be public.
"In regards to representatives of the press, I can say, as we joked when I worked for an entirely different organization," Putin said - referring to his time with the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB - "They were sent to peek but eavesdropped instead. It's not proper."
Putin condemned violence against women but then said: "The Israeli instance is special."
"In my view, and many experts agree with me, a significant part of Israeli society was not satisfied with their leadership's action in the Lebanon conflict," Putin said.
"Using instruments like defense of women's rights to solve unrelated political questions is unacceptable."
On foreign policy matters, Putin criticized North Korea for its nuclear test about 180 kilometers, or 110 miles, from the Russian border, but assuaged any fear of radioactive fallout by saying prevailing winds in the Far East blow to sea.
On Georgia, he said Russia recognized the country's territorial integrity but noted that two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, were not historically part of Georgia when that country was annexed into the Russian empire.
Speaking forcefully, almost combatively, Putin demonstrated his command of details and numbers, something that has become a hallmark of his public addresses.
Putin said Russia's economy was growing at a fast clip but had failed to diversify from dependence on oil and gas.
He also vowed to solve a string of high-profile contract murders, including the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, this month. He said, however, that murder for hire, the ultimate system of settling disputes in Russia in the 1990s, had declined on his watch and said the authorities were becoming more successful in solving the crimes.