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A Long and Winding Putin Session

Times Staff Writer

In a marathon Kremlin news conference Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin called on Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and spoke against independence for Kosovo.

Putin also said that four British diplomats recently accused of being spies would not be expelled from Russia, and that there was no need for the incident to damage relations between Moscow and London. He recited a long list of Russia’s economic accomplishments during his presidency, dismissing foreign critics of Russia’s worthiness for G-8 membership with a proverb: “The dog keeps barking but the caravan moves on.”

Putin exuded confidence while addressing a sweeping array of topics, answering questions from 64 reporters during the 3 1/2 -hour session, occasionally injecting humor or earthy language. About half the 1,000 journalists present flew in from Russian regions for the annual event, and many asked offbeat questions of local or personal interest.

The news conference was the fifth of its kind since Putin first won office in 2000, and was the largest and longest yet. The first two hours were carried live on two nationwide state-run television networks.

On Hamas, which recently won Palestinian parliamentary elections, Putin said that Russia had never regarded the group as a terrorist organization and that Moscow opposed a cutoff of foreign aid, but that it also expected Hamas to change.

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“We know that worldwide, the opposition often makes radical statements, and it is a different thing when they have received a vote of confidence of the people,” he said. “It is necessary to leave radical phraseology behind. It is necessary to recognize Israel’s right to existence.”

Putin said that allowing independence for Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia that has been under United Nations control since 1999, could set a dangerous precedent for other countries. While not mentioning Russia’s fears for its own territorial integrity in places such as Chechnya, he warned that the example of an independent Kosovo could make it more likely that Russia and other countries would recognize Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

“If someone considers that Kosovo can be given full state independence, then why must we refuse this to the Abkhazians or South Ossetians?” he said.

Putin expressed pride in Russia’s economic accomplishments under his leadership.

“We have substantially reduced, by millions, the number of those living below the poverty line,” he said. “We have substantially reduced the unemployment rate. We have increased very substantially our gold and hard currency reserves.... We have substantially increased real incomes of the population, which is the main thing.”

Russia’s economy grew last year by 6.4% and the market capitalization of the country’s stock market soared by 88%, he said.

Putin dismissed as irrelevant those foreigners who say Russia does not belong in the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations, even though it holds the organization’s presidency this year.

“I know the feelings of the G-8 leaders,” he said. “Everybody wants Russia to join the club and take an active part in its work because nobody wants the G-8 to turn into a gathering of fat cats. Differences and imbalances are growing in the world.

“The difference in the quality of life between the so-called golden billion and the poorest nations is growing.”

Speaking of the alleged spy case, in which British diplomats were accused of using short-range communications equipment hidden in fake rocks to exchange information with Russian sources, Putin said he believed that the incident would “not result in any lowering of the level of our joint work with Great Britain.”

“I am sure that we will discuss this in personal meetings with the prime minister, among other things,” he said.

“Anyway, the character and quality of our relations today are so strong and fundamental that such scandals, fortunately, cannot undermine the foundations of our interaction with Great Britain.”

As for the diplomats accused of spying, “let them stay put here,” Putin said. “In the diplomatic mission of any country there are career diplomats and there are representatives of secret services.”

He indicated, however, that the four diplomats would be kept under surveillance. “We will be happier to know that these people are under our control,” he said.

Some observers have viewed the alleged spying as primarily an attempt to put pressure on Russian nongovernmental organizations that have received funding from the British Embassy, because one of the accused diplomats allegedly played a role in that funding. The British Foreign Office has denied any improper conduct in its relations with Russian NGOs but has neither admitted nor denied the spying allegations.

During the news conference, Putin also reiterated assertions that Russia had tested highly maneuverable nuclear missiles that can penetrate any kind of antimissile system envisioned by other countries. Putin first spoke of the maneuverable nuclear missiles nearly two years ago, and it appeared that he brought them up again Tuesday to emphasize Russia’s geopolitical power.

Two-and-a-half hours into the news conference, Putin indicated that it should start drawing to a close, expressing himself in a way rarely heard from a major world leader. “I think that hardly any one of us, heading for this event, put on disposable diapers, so we need a technical break,” he said. “We will work a little bit more, but we will be winding up gradually.”

Putin then took questions for an hour more, appearing to win an endurance contest against many in the auditorium. Toward the end, more than 100 reporters were still raising their hands, but he twice indicated that the event was near its conclusion, and the remark drew applause both times.


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