Russian President Vladimir Putin's sixth annual citizen call-in show on Thursday garnered an estimated three million questions from across Russia as well as from neighboring Kazakhstan, which has a sizable Russian population. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has details.

The Kremlin leader began more than three hours on the air with claims that stronger than expected Russian economic growth is being driven not by the sale of natural resources, such as oil or metals, but rather by construction, transportation, communications and investments.

Mr. Putin also said Russia is reversing its demographic decline with the recent birthrate reaching its highest level in 15 years, and the death rate its lowest since 1999.

Viewers raised domestic issues such as unemployment, inflation, and traffic jams, as well as international ones related to neighboring Ukraine, membership in the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Mr. Putin said he agrees with President Bush that international forces should leave Iraq only when that country's leadership is able to stabilize the situation.

But Mr. Putin says he differs with the American leader on the issue of a troop withdrawal date. Mr. Putin says a deadline must be set, otherwise, Iraqi leaders will not hurry to develop their own security forces.

He also said his latest contacts with senior American officials indicate they understand Russian concerns about the proposed missile defense system the United States wants to deploy in Central Europe. He added that Russia will defend her interests should those concerns be ignored.

Regarding his own country's forces, President Putin said Russian strategic bombers and nuclear submarines are being modernized and special attention is being paid to intelligence, electronic warfare, and the ordinary soldier.

He says Russian plans are not simply big, they are grandiose. He says Russian forces will be compact, but will defend Russian security for many years to come.

On domestic issues, the Russian leader fielded questions on the Russian national soccer team, his favorite, security in the Caucasus, big city traffic jams, assistance to large families, handicap infrastructure, digital television, and the high price of milk.

On that issue, he criticized local authorities who support dairy processing monopolies that artificially hike retail prices. He said his most difficult task as president has been fighting poverty and bridging the gap between rich and poor.

Mr. Putin said Russia needs to encourage the growth of the middle class. He said there needs to be financial assistance for some Russians and also development of small and medium-size businesses.

Mr. Putin's final question came from a nine-year-old girl who asked if she could ever become president of Russia. Mr. Putin acknowledged her dream and said any Russian can become president if he or she is qualified for the job.