Angry Russians bombard Putin with questions in trial by TV

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The Independent Online

It was only the fourth time he has exposed himself to what looked like a genuinely unscripted TV debate since assuming the presidency in 1999 and he expressed feelings of empathy, anger and concern in a polished performance. He managed to answer about 60 of more than a million questions put to him by e-mail, text message, telephone and video link yesterday, often sighing heavily as he dealt with complaints about wages, accommodation shortages or the army.

Anxious to avoid the kind of revolution that swept Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, Mr Putin talked up the economy and political stability, and promised ordinary people's living standards would steadily rise.

When asked if he would run for a third successive term in 2008, something his critics say he is planning despite its illegality under the constitution, he tried to come across as altruistic, saying he was laying the foundations for Russia's "long-term development" and "young literate managers".

He ruled out altering the constitution but was coy about his own future, suggesting he would have a role in any future Russian government. "As they say in the military, I'll find my place in the ranks," was his enigmatic response. Though some analysts claimed questioners and questions had been selected so as not to embarrass him, Mr Putin claimed otherwise and there were awkward moments.

The Russian leader's most trying session came in a live link with an audience in Grozny, Chechnya.

A woman who said her son had been kidnapped and disappeared without trace asked Mr Putin when the abductions would end and who would be held responsible. Human rights groups have accused Russian troops and Moscow-backed militia of being behind many kidnappings.

"We will continue the search for missing people and those guilty of these crimes," said Mr Putin. He said it was impossible to know if the perpetrators were rebels "in disguise" or members of the law- enforcement authorities.

Another Grozny resident said the city resembled Stalingrad after the Second World War because of Kremlin-sanctioned bombardments and asked him why reconstruction efforts were taking so long.

A young woman student asked him why Chechnya had the highest unemployment in Russia, complaining that she could not find a job anywhere else in the country because of the discrimination she faced as a Chechen.

Mr Putin admitted that a "distorted image" of Chechens had developed and said the media and the government should help to counter it.