Putin goes on the road – and plots his route back to power

Russian Prime Minister spends weekend driving across Siberia in a Lada and admits he may run again for presidency in 2012

Vladimir Putin emerged from a yellow Lada sports car in the Siberian city of Chita yesterday, after driving more than 1,200 miles to complete a road trip across Russia's Far Eastern regions.

Fitting in to what appears to be a growing PR campaign to boost his image ahead of a potential return to the Kremlin in 2012, the powerful Russian Prime Minister set off on the journey late last week, sporting a pair of dark glasses and a cream polo shirt.

Mr Putin had a small fridge of drinks in the boot and a Beatles CD to keep him company – as well as an entourage of dozens of journalists, broadcasting the trip to Russians across the country.

In one interview, given while at the wheel of the Lada to the Kommersant newspaper, Mr Putin admitted he was indeed contemplating a return to the Russian presidency in 2012. He also said that pro-democracy protesters deserved to be "beaten around the head with truncheons".

The Russian Prime Minister was testing out a highway that has been in construction for decades and is the last link in a paved road that connects Moscow and Vladivostok, several thousand miles and seven time zones apart. He was also playing up to his "man of the people" image, in a month that has seen a remarkable flurry of televised stunts, even by his standards.

During the fires that ravaged European Russia earlier this month, he was pictured co-piloting a plane that dropped water on a burning forest ("Did I hit it?" he was recorded asking the pilot. "Yes, a direct hit!" was the response). Then last week he added to his animal-related escapades, which have already featured tigers, polar bears and leopards, when he boarded a dinghy off the Kamchatka Peninsula and fired darts from a crossbow to collect skin samples from a grey whale.

Mr Putin described the car journey as "the first break I've had for a decade or so", but even if he really did enjoy speeding through the Siberian landscapes, there was no doubt that the trip was as carefully choreographed as his other exploits. The television cameras were never far away, and any exchanges he had with ordinary Siberians along the way were filmed and made into packages for the evening news bulletins on Russian television.

During the trip, he gave one of his most open interviews in recent years to Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist with Kommersant who has covered Mr Putin during his entire tenure as President and Prime Minister, and is allowed far more free rein for criticism and sarcasm in Mr Putin's direction than most other Russian reporters.

"You understand that you have made mistakes, you just don't want to admit it," remarked Mr Kolesnikov to Mr Putin at one stage in the interview, after the Prime Minister had said that during his whole decade in power he could not think of a single mistake he had made. "Maybe we could have done some things more carefully, effectively, wisely..." said Mr Putin, but reiterated that no serious mistakes had been made.

Mr Putin has been widely tipped for a return to the Kremlin in 2012, and with presidential terms recently extended to six years, he could remain in power until 2024. He has stated that he will sit down with the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and decide which of them will run in 2012. In the current Russian political climate, non-Kremlin candidates would not stand a chance. In yesterday's interview, Mr Putin admitted that the 2012 elections are on his mind. "It interests me like... I wanted to say like everyone, but, in fact, more than everyone else. But I don't want to make a fetish out of it."

The Prime Minister also said that those who attend unauthorised protests deserve to be beaten by police. "You have to receive permission from the local authorities. If you get it, go and demonstrate. If you don't, you have no right to. If you go anyway, you'll get beaten around the head with a truncheon. And that's it!" He insisted that the same thing happens in London if people try to protest without permission and "nobody complains".

The Russian Prime Minister is "dishonest, ignorant and evil", wrote opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was arrested for taking part in such a protest earlier this month, on his blog in response to Mr Putin's comments. "It's clear that the call to beat your own people, moreover those who are unarmed and not showing any resistance, is a crime," he wrote. Mr Nemstov is part of the umbrella opposition movement Solidarity, which organises protests on the last day of every month with 31 days, in reference to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which gives the right to demonstrate.

Local authorities frequently block opposition-minded protests on technicalities, or claim that particular locations are not available due to clashes with other events – usually hastily arranged rallies organised by Kremlin-backed youth groups. Earlier this month, Moscow authorities unexpectedly announced that Triumfalnaya Square, the main Moscow venue for the Article 31 protests, is to be closed off for up to two years to enable the construction of an underground parking facility, and the square has already been surrounded by metal fencing. However, organisers say they will still rally at the edges of the square this evening. For the first time, there will also be an Article 31 protest in London today, outside the Russian Embassy.

On foreign policy, an area which is now technically the purview of Mr Medvedev, but where most observers believe that the Prime Minister still has a significant say, Mr Putin was his usual strident self. He repeated criticism of Nato expansion into countries bordering Russia, and accused the West of duping Moscow after the end of the Cold War, a complaint he has voiced many times before. "At the time of the withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the Nato secretary general promised the USSR it could be confident that Nato would not expand over its current boundaries," said Mr Putin. "And where is it? I asked them [Nato officials] about this. They have nothing to say. They deceived us in the rudest way."

When it comes to the US, and the much-discussed "reset" of relations under the administration of Barack Obama, Mr Putin said actions such as the rearming of Georgia and plans for some form of missile defence system in Eastern Europe give him cause for concern. "Where is this reset, then?" he asked, rhetorically. "I think Obama is sincere, but I don't know what he can and can't do. I want to see whether he'll be able to pull it off or not."

Mr Putin's choice of car for the journey was meant to give a boost to Russia's struggling domestic automobile industry. However, some Russian media reported that about 250 miles into the journey, the car started making a screeching noise and was quickly replaced with another, identical, yellow Lada.

According to Putin: the Russian prime minister on...

*Mikhail Khodorkovsky "When I heard about the second trial, I was very surprised ... I asked what it was about; after all, he's already in jail. What second trial? But if it is going on, then there must be a legal basis for it. It's not me who is running the case!"

*The economy "People in the past criticised us for putting too much money into the reserves ... But even then we were working on the assumption that there would be international crises and we would need reserves ... We can't just cream off money from the oil and gas sector. That would lead to inflation."

*The opposition "What's good about the contemporary world? You can say something around the corner from a public toilet and the whole world will hear because all the television cameras will be there."

*His road trip "When you look at everything with your own eyes, you start to understand what is really missing and what we need to do so that people really feel it."

*Modernising Russia "It's not as simple as making pancakes!"

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