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Putin Kicks Off Re-Election Campaign with Well-Choreographed TV Event - 2004-02-12

Russian President Vladimir Putin has kicked off his re-election campaign with a speech before hand-picked campaign managers from around the country. He has promised to stay the course if re-elected.

President Putin strode onto the stage for a well-choreographed event that was also televised live across Russia on state television from Moscow State University.

He reminded Russians of the economic and political turmoil that prevailed when he assumed power in 1999, and then read a string of statistics showing how the country's economy has improved.

But he said there was plenty more to be done.

He said his government has accomplished many things, but has not yet finished its job. Mr. Putin also insisted he had crushed the separatist rebels in Chechnya, although fighting in the breakaway republic continues.

Some in the audience said the speech was reminiscent of party congresses in the Soviet era, when the leader would address the party faithful brought in for the occasion. Mr. Putin seemed nostalgic for the Soviet days, saying the breakup of the Soviet Union had been a national tragedy on an enormous scale.

Across town, six opposing candidates launched their own campaigns with a debate aimed not as much at airing the issues as at underscoring the futility of political discussion in today's Russia. Mr. Putin said last week he would not take part in any public debate.

Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov said the president had no need to engage in an election campaign because, "Mr. Putin already gets all the daily exposure he needs in the mostly state-controlled media." He said Mr. Putin deprives the Russian people of the right to choose.

Most of Mr. Putin's six challengers are political unknowns who command single-digit support among voters.

Opinion polls consistently show Mr. Putin has a 70 percent approval rating and is expected to win the March 14 presidential elections by a similar percentage.