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Putin hits the open Russian road to woo his far-flung countrymen

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is touring Russia's Far East in a bright yellow Lada, making daily headlines ahead of what appears to be his plan to run for the presidency in 2012.

By Correspondent / August 30, 2010

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin drives a Russian-made Lada Kalina car in the city of Khabarovsk August 27.

Alexei Druzhinin/Ria Novosti/Reuters

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Moscow

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who showed last week that he is always up for an adventure, is currently touring Russia's remote and rugged far east in a bright yellow Lada Kalina, provided by AvtoVAZ, Russia's largest carmaker.

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Along the way, he's made daily headlines by visiting a newly constructed space launch center, inaugurating an oil pipeline to China, and griping to journalists about the poor quality of Russian roads and the high cost of gasoline.

He struck a different note on Monday, using a newspaper interview to defend harsh police tactics against the small anti-Putin opposition led by chess champion Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who plan to stage another of their controversial series of street rallies in defense of free speech on Tuesday.

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Experts say Mr. Putin, who arguably remains the country's most powerful leader – even though Russia's Constitution stipulates that a prime minister is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Kremlin – is almost certainly preparing for a fresh run at the presidency in elections slated for 2012.

"Putin loves to do these things, but the aim here is also to increase his profile and popularity before the decision is made about who will run for the president's job," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "This will ensure that he remains the key leader in the country, no matter what happens."

Speaking to the Moscow daily Kommersant on Monday, Putin hinted that might like to occupy the Kremlin again. "[Being president] interests me like ... I wanted to say like everyone, but in fact more than everyone else," Putin said. "But I don't want to make a fetish out of it."

However, the top Kremlin post is held by his own hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, who has lately been signaling that he might want to hold on to it beyond 2012, when a new Constitutional amendment that extends presidential terms from four to six years will kick in.

One such signal came last week after 3,000 environmentalists and their supporters rallied in downtown Moscow to protest the construction of a toll road through the Khimki Forest, a public green zone near Moscow that was removed from its protected status by a Putin decree last year. Mr. Medvedev ordered the project suspended pending a new review and search for possible alternative routes.

In a statement posted on his official website, Putin said he agreed that the final route of the road was open to question, but also insisted that the project is necessary. Environmentalists say that, of the 144 hectares of forest slated for destruction, nearly half the trees have already been chopped down.

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