Putin the 'phenomenon' on display at annual press conference

Visibly relaxed and oozing self-confidence, President Vladimir Putin met a record 1,139 journalists in the vast Kremlin auditorium Thursday for his sixth, and possibly last, annual press conference.

Unlike his embattled US counterpart, Mr. Putin is heading into his final full year as president with a public approval rating that hit 80 percent last month, a field devoid of political opponents, and a profusion of glad economic tidings to announce. Though the format was tightly controlled, the mood in the hall seemed almost festive, with journalists holding up multicolored signs stating the region or city they represented in a bid to attract the president's attention.

Putin did not disappoint. For almost four hours, he fielded questions on a bewildering range of topics; the answers were authoritative and he often rattled off statistics and pertinent examples in support thereof.

Russia vaulted into the ranks of the world's 10 top economies last year, Putin said, with GDP growth of almost 7 percent, major increases in average wages, an unprecedented influx of foreign investment, and a stock market that jumped 80 percent last year to reach a value of $1 trillion. "We have managed to sustain not only a growing economy, but a diversified one," Putin insisted.

Questions swung from issues of global security to local political scandals in Siberia. No matter appeared too small for Putin to deal with:

• Will recent electrical blackouts in the southern city of Sochi set back its bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics? Don't worry, that's under control.

• Is Russia's demographic crisis easing? Yes, deaths were down by 13 percent last year.

• What about Finland's bid to join NATO? Well, "it wouldn't be good for world peace."

• Does Russia use its energy muscle to bully neighbors? No, "we just want a fair price."

• What do you think about the trial of a school principal in the city of Perm, who was accused of using pirated software? "We should protect intellectual property," but the law should be changed to protect small violators like him.

Perhaps most surprising was his answer to this question: Do you use some sort of special equipment to help you remember all these facts? Absolutely not, Putin replied. "I work with these issues every day," so it's easy to recall the data, he said.

"He's a phenomenon, there's no question about it," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "He's clearly engaged in all these issues and he keeps all that information in his head. It sure didn't look like the press conference of a lame duck."

Most experts believe the appearance of spontaneity was genuine, and the nearly 300 foreign journalists present would be unlikely to leave any overt manipulation unreported. But the curtain may have slipped a bit when Marina Solovyenko, a journalist from Russia's far east, rose. "I'm not on the agreed list, and neither is my question," she said hesitantly, implying that there may have been a prearranged list of questioners and questions. Putin nodded brusquely, and she went on to ask about local corruption issues; he answered firmly but straightforwardly.

Critics say the growing length of these Putin press events, and the expanding list of matters he's expected to address, speaks volumes about the political system he's created during seven years in office.

"Putin has concentrated all power in the Kremlin and emasculated other decisionmaking centers," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "So everything comes down to him; he's the only person who can decide any issue, no matter how small. So, he's expected to look like he's on top of every little thing."

However, one question on journalists' minds – who will succeed Putin when his second term expires in just over a year – remained largely unanswered.

"There will be no successor," Putin said, denying earlier suggestions that he will groom a likeminded heir. "There will be candidates to the presidential post, and the authorities' goal will be to ensure that the elections are held democratically."

Two close Putin associates have been suggested as likely successors: deputy prime minister and Gazprom chief Dmitri Medvedev, and defense minister Sergei Ivanov. Both have been given extra duties and thrust into the media spotlight by the Kremlin over the past year.

"Having cleansed the political scene of any figures that could truly be considered serious contenders for power, Putin's now telling us that we can expect an open and democratic choice," says Ms. Lipman. "We probably shouldn't take that too seriously."

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