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Putin: Life in Russia Is Getting Better

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a live, televised conversation with people from across Russia Thursday - fielding questions ranging from the serious to humorous.

Bundled up in fur hats and mittens, people across Russia stood outside, in the cold, to ask President Putin questions by satellite link, by telephone or over the Internet on everything from the war in Chechnya to Christmas trees.

His overall message was that life in Russian is getting better.

President Putin said during the past year the country has become richer, fewer citizens are unemployed and people are living better.

But there were still plenty of complaints. Many people asked questions relating to government benefits or social programs, such as when pensions would be increased or why, in their view, nothing is being done to fight corruption.

A frequent theme was the ongoing war in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya.

A farmer and war veteran from a village in Bashkortostan, a region West of the Ural mountains asked whether it is now time to negotiate an end to the war in Chechnya, where Russian troops have been fighting separatists for the past three years. Mr. Putin said Russia would like to end the conflict, but referring to the Chechen separatists, Mr. Putin said he would not negotiate with terrorists.

President Putin said his government would like to find a way to end the conflict by turning over power to the Chechen people, making them responsible for their own republic.

One woman asked about the hostage crisis in Moscow earlier this year in which Chechen separatists took hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater. 129 of the hostages died, almost all from the effects of gas used by Russian forces to subdue the Chechen rebels before storming the building.

A woman, a teacher from the town of Dubna near Moscow, wanted to know how such a catastrophe could happen in Moscow and how parents like her can protect their children in the future.

Mr. Putin responded by saying that millions of people come to Moscow every day and that more cooperation is needed with other countries to counter terrorism.

Not all the questions were of a serious nature. One caller requested that all the generals in the military be required to do push-ups to test their physical fitness. One caller was curious about the upcoming New Year's holiday.

11-year-old Natalya Bugayova wanted to know why her town leaders decided this year to put up an artificial tree in the center of the city instead of a real tree. Traditionally the Russian people decorate large trees to celebrate New Year's.

With an amused expression, President Putin said he didn't know why it happened but pointedly suggested to the local governor that he put up a real tree as a present to the townsfolk.

This is the second time the Russian leader has sat down for such an interview and answered questions from around the country. President Putin seemed to enjoy the event, which stretched from a planned 90 minutes to almost three hours. The interview was broadcast across the country on both television and radio.