Russian President Vladimir Putin disagrees with critics at home and abroad who suggest Russia is rapidly retreating from democratic gains in favor of more authoritarian rule. The Russian president says the country needs a strong leader, if only to continue what he says are significant political, economic, and social changes.
There were no real surprises during President Putin's fifth annual press conference in his six years as president. But the lengthy exchange, lasting nearly four hours, covered a wide array of topics and gave some measure of the man whom many find very hard to read.
President Putin focused his message on the economy and one of his number-one policy priorities, improving Russian quality of life. On that score, he says much progress has been made and that Russians can now feel proud of their country as one worthy of holding its own on the world stage.
In 2005, President Putin says, his government made long steps toward strengthening the economy, increasing Russia's gross domestic product more than six percent. He says real wages have risen by nearly nine percent, and pensions nearly 13, despite continuing high inflation.
In one of a handful of questions Mr. Putin fielded from Western reporters, he rejected recent characterizations that Russia, under his leadership, is experiencing a rollback in democratic gains.
The Russian leader was asked to square Russia's backing of Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov, following unrest in Andijan - during which Uzbek troops allegedly massacred innocent civilians, with Russia's stated support of European democratic values.
President Putin rejected the questioner's basic premise that the two approaches were incompatible.
"We know what happened in Andijan better than you," Mr. Putin tersely replied.
While he acknowledged that Uzbekistan faces numerous problems, he says it does not need "any revolution." We need evolution, the Russian leader added, saying that would lead to the establishment of democracy.
But some in Europe and the West are beginning to question if Russia knows the real meaning of the word, especially after Russia's parliament pushed through a highly controversial law last December, tightening control over thousands of independent non-governmental organizations established to promote basic human rights and civil society issues.
During a recent meeting in Moscow with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Putin drew public scorn for the move. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently suggested the new law could cause some to question Russia's fitness to chair the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit in St. Petersburg later this year.
But Mr. Putin appears unfazed by the criticism.
He challenges skeptics to keep on saying there is no room for Russia at the G-8 table. "We know, otherwise", he added.
Mr. Putin also sought to lay to rest any lingering concerns among executives and investors that Russia might interfere in the private sector, following the dismantling of Yukos, once Russia's largest private oil company.
He said as far as LUKOIL, TNK-BP and others are concerned, there are no plans to nationalize them. He says the companies will develop according to market conditions as private firms, during what President Putin says is a crucial time for the world energy market.