Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is vowing harsh action against terrorism, a threat he says has not been eliminated in Russia and elsewhere. The subject led his eighth-annual televised call-in program that typically covers topics ranging from municipal to international affairs.
Before taking telephone calls from citizens across Russia, Mr. Putin said much has been done to break the spine of terrorism, but the threat has not been eliminated. His statement follows last week's bombing of an express train between Moscow and Saint Petersburg that claimed 26 lives. Chechen rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mr. Putin says Russia must deal very harshly with criminals that carry out such terrorist acts and make attempts on the lives and health of people. He adds that Russians are sufficiently strong and determined to do so.
Mr. Putin fielded questions from across Russia posed by farm and factory workers concerned about the economy and global financial crisis. He told his audience that there is substantial certainty the global economic crisis has peaked, but noted the Russian economy continues to struggle.
The prime minister says some experts predicted a 10-percent decline in the Russian GDP. He notes the actual decline was less, but nonetheless significant - about 8.5 to 8.7 percent. He adds that this year's drop in industrial production will probably be 13 percent.
Mr. Putin says accession to the World Trade Organization remains a strategic Russian goal. But he shares an impression that some countries, including the United States, are blocking Russia's WTO membership for unknown reasons.
Mr. Putin singles out America's Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment as what he calls an anachronism standing in the way of WTO accession. The 1974 legislation linked U.S.-Soviet trade to emigration rights for religious minorities, mostly Jewish.
He says everyone understands restrictions on emigration and the Soviet Union no longer exist, but the amendment remains in effect. He calls it a clear anachronism and claims certain lobbies in the U.S. Congress use Jackson-Vanik to pursue narrow economic interests, demanding, for example, that Russia increase the import quota for U.S. poultry.
U.S. supporters of Jackson-Vanik say its repeal is not warranted because of continued Russian human rights violations. WTO rules require that members trade with one another on equal terms, which is not possible with Russia as long as the amendment remains in force.
Mr. Putin spoke in detail for more than four hours on such topics as orders for train locomotives, Chinese competition in the steel industry, the content of national TV programs, and development of his country's sports infrastructure. In each case, he assured Russians his government is working hard to address shortcomings and to raise individual salaries or pensions.
When asked about such widespread social problems as decrepit hospitals, poor transport or the pay of kindergarten teachers, he said such matters should be discussed on the municipal or regional level.
Mr. Putin's call-in follows an identical pattern each year. A dozen or more stone-faced workers are lined up in their factory; a couple of them ask questions via televised hookups, and Mr. Putin answers. He frequently includes a personal reminiscence of a meeting with that specific group. Then, a member of the studio audience follows up with a related question.
This was particularly evident this year when a large group of aviation engineering students happened to be in the studio with Mr. Putin to follow-up on questions posed by airplane construction workers in the Russian Far East. Interspersed are questions sent by e-mail or cell phone messages.
Scrolling text on the bottom of the TV screen shows some of the 700,000 questions sent in for the show. They include lighthearted inquiries about the prime minister's physique and whether he would accept an invitation for a slow dance with a female admirer.
Asked about his relations with George W. Bush, Mr. Putin referred to the former U.S. president as a decent man and good friend with whom he would be happy to discuss any social, official or ordinary problems.
Responding to a question whether Russia would help if the United States collapsed, the Prime Minister said such a demise would be bad for everyone, because America is the world's biggest economy and also a major Russian partner. Better, he said, to live in a world of prosperity, not catastrophe.