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Russias Putin sees long-term role for himself, no serious flaws in his presidency
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his news conference in Moscow's Kemlin on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008. Vladimir Putin was to hold the last annual news conference of his eight-year presidency Thursday, taking dozens of questions from more than 1,000 Russian and foreign journalists packing a big Kremlin auditorium. - photo by Associated Press
    MOSCOW — In Vladimir Putin’s valedictory presidential news conference, he claimed credit for Russia’s rise from the ashes, accused the West of reviving Cold War fears and said he hopes for a long tenure as prime minister after he leaves the presidency in May.
    Hunched forward at a table facing more than 1,000 journalists from across Russia and around the world, Putin obviously relished his final performance in the annual event that has become a trademark of his presidency.
    A confident, comfortable Putin spent 4 hours and 40 minutes fielding questions, a record for these events, and seemed reluctant to leave the stage.
    ‘‘I don’t see any serious failures,’’ he said, speaking in the Round Hall, a cavernous Soviet-style auditorium in the cloistered precincts of the Kremlin grounds. ‘‘All the goals that were set were reached, and the tasks fulfilled.’’
    He also returned to the theme that has echoed throughout his second term: that Moscow is once again a world power determined to be respected, if not loved, by the U.S. and Europe.
    ‘‘We will not slide into confrontation, but we believe we have the right to fight for our interests as our partners do,’’ he said, when asked if Russia was acting aggressively toward the West.
    Russians will elect a new president March 2 and Putin will step down from the post in May. But Putin’s longtime friend and aide, Dmitry Medvedev, is all but certain of winning the presidency and Putin has agreed to become prime minister.
    There has been speculation that Putin will serve in the post only temporarily, but on Thursday he committed himself to serving until he completes the work he has begun.
    ‘‘The premiership is not a transitional post,’’ Putin said. ‘‘If I can see that in this capacity I can fulfill these goals, I will work as long as possible.’’
    He strongly suggested he would govern in tandem with Medvedev. While the president sets the course for the country, he said, ‘‘the highest executive power in the country is the government of the Russian Federation’’ — which he would direct as prime minister.
    In a blue suit and striped tie, Putin spoke with his hands flat on the table, boring in on questioners with his trademark intensity. He spoke, as usual, in short, simple sentences that often came to a sharp point, and he frequently bantered, or even flirted, with reporters, sometimes eliciting laughter and applause. From time to time, he sipped from a delicate teacup.
    When it came to the United States, Putin sympathetically said that the job of the U.S. president was probably tougher than his, and that few understood how heavy a burden President Bush carries.
    But if he was sometimes kind, he was frequently critical. Putin repeatedly painted the United States and NATO as the aggressors in a series of disputes, saying Russia was being forced to react.
    Washington and its allies have refused to ratify an amended version of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, he pointed out, which limits the deployment of heavy conventional weapons around the continent. Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the pact in December.
    He likened the restrictions Russia faces under the existing treaty to a situation in which the U.S. would have to seek Russian approval before it sent troops from California to Texas. ‘‘We will no longer fulfill any colonial conditions,’’ Putin said.
    He refused to back away from a threat to retarget some nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if those countries host a planned U.S. anti-ballistic missile system. ‘‘We are warning people ahead of time: If you take this step, then we will make that step,’’ Putin said.
    Despite these differences, Putin said he was ready to work with whomever is elected the next American president, saying Russia and the U.S. have common interests in the fights against international terror, nuclear nonproliferation, poverty and infectious disease.
    But the former KGB lieutenant colonel appeared to lash out at Sen. Hillary Clinton — a Democratic candidate for president— when one reporter quoted her as saying that former KGB officers have no soul: ‘‘At a minimum, a head of state should have a head,’’ Putin said.
    Putin handled the few challenging questions with little evident strain.
    Asked if he is Europe’s richest man, he smoothly replied that he was rich in the love of his countrymen. Journalists who have suggested he has become a multibillionaire while in office, he added tartly, were spreading ‘‘nonsense’’ they had ‘‘picked out of their noses.’’
    Asked why Russia failed to reach an agreement with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about sending observers to monitor the presidential ballot, he accused groups within the OSCE of trying to ‘‘teach’’ Russia to behave.
    ‘‘Let them teach their wives to make cabbage soup,’’ he said.
    As he has repeatedly, Putin declared Russia’s allegiance to democracy. But then he went on to praise new laws that have eliminated all genuine opposition from parliament.
    At one point Putin contrasted what he called Russia’s ‘‘quiet’’ presidential contest, where Medvedev is almost certain to win over three token opponents, with the seemingly unending political turmoil in Ukraine.
    ‘‘Democracy is not a bazaar,’’ Putin said.
    Associated Press Writer Steve Gutterman contributed to this report.

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