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Vlad TV: Putin hits airwaves to reassure Russians

No longer president, he still commands center stage and a high level of trust

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Putin dampened speculation that he might be seeking an early return to the Kremlin by noting that Russia's next scheduled presidential election is in 2012, and adding "I think everyone should carry out his duties in his job."

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Some analysts argue that mounting popular fears over the faltering economy, compounded by official efforts to block sensitive information about layoffs and price rises, may have compelled Putin to take to the airwaves to calm the situation. "People are very concerned about the 'troubles,' as they're being called," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "As long as there is trust in Putin, and polls show that there is, he uses it to issue a reassuring note.

"His performance was totally in line with the official TV coverage, which is not focused on the impact of the crisis but rather on how the government is firmly in charge," she says.

The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Thursday that the Ministry of Labor has banned officials around the country from releasing information about layoffs or factory slowdowns. Last month, the Kremlin ordered prosecutors around the country to open a watch on how media outlets cover the crisis in order to root out "misinformation." Editors of several regional outlets have been called in for "conversations" with security officials about their coverage, according to the Russian Union of Journalists.

"This doesn't mean censorship, but it does represent a further limitation on our relative press freedoms," says Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow's independent Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "Under the pretext of struggle against panic, they've opened an attack on all fronts. The main impact will be to compel journalists to self-censor. Fear makes journalists stop writing about certain subjects, and the list ... is already rather long."

Putin also answered questions concerning foreign affairs, an area that in the past was entirely a presidential prerogative.

Putin warned Ukraine that Russia may cut its energy supplies if it fails to pay its outstanding debts to the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili briefly received the sharp side of Putin's tongue. On troubled US-Russian relations, Putin said he sees hopeful signs that President-elect Barack Obama will bring positive change.

"After all the tensions of the George W. Bush era, and all the damage done, the mood in the Kremlin is that the ball is now in the US court," says Mr. Lukyanov. "We'll wait and see, but we won't make the first move."

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