Putin defends Kremlin bid, warns of Soviet-style collapse
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday sought to defend his controversial plan to seek a third mandate as president, saying Russia needed stability and was only a few steps from a return to the collapse of the 1990s.
Speaking in televised remarks in a rare acknowledgement of public discontent Putin said his political opponents claim that "everything is so bad, that it could not get worse".
"Saying that things cannot get worse, I would be careful. It's enough to take two or three wrong steps and everything that was before could overwhelm us so quickly that we would not even have time to look around."
"Everything here is tacked together, both in politics and in the economy," Putin said in a startling admission of the fragility of the stability that he prides himself on bringing to Russia since coming to power in 1999.
Speaking on prime time television, he reminded Russians of their not-so-distant past, stressing the danger of a collapse was not hypothetical.
"We let the state collapse," he added. "Things got as far as -- we have to say it directly -- civil war."
"The entire Caucasus was drenched in blood," he said, noting the continuing unrest in the troubled North Caucasus and problems "with crime and terrorism".
"I never sought out this post," Putin added, referring to the Kremlin post.
"But if I set out to tackle something, I try to bring the matter to its logical conclusion or, at the very least, to bring this matter to the maximum effect."
In a punchy, populist interview broadcast simultaneously on the three main national channels, he reminded Russians of the shortages of the late 1980s as the Soviet economy collapsed, by telling a joke from the time.
"Friends come round to visit and the hosts ask: Do you want to wash your hands with soap? "Yes". Then you'll have to drink your tea without sugar."
He stressed that he had not "clung onto" his presidential position, but listed national leaders who had stood for more than two presidential terms, saying times of turbulence called for political stability.
With an eye to his position in history, he referred to one of his political heroes, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, stressing he stood for office four times, and quoted another, the French leader Charles De Gaulle.
"Choose the most difficult way and then you can be sure of at least one thing: you won't have any competitors."
Putin remains Russia's most popular politician and analysts say his victory in March elections is all but assured. His protege, Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev, agreed to become his prime minister in a new government.
Speaking on Moscow's ties with the West, the 59-year-old prime mininster said Russia would pursue a balanced foreign policy.
"In the past, today and in the future we have conducted and will conduct a balanced policy aimed at creating favourable conditions for the country's development," Putin said after announcing last month his plan to seek a third mandate as president.
"And this means that we want to have good neighbourly, friendly ties with all our partners."
"We are not interested in confrontation."
Putin spoke after many analysts in the West warned that Putin's planned Kremlin comeback could deal a blow to the US-Russian "reset" in ties and usher in frostier relations with the West.
Replying to a request from his interviewers to commment on Western attempts to brand him a "hawk", Putin said:
"First off, a hawk is a good little bird. I am a person anyway. But I am against any cliches."
"Naturally, we've protected and will protect in the most active manner our national interests but we've always done this in a civilised way and will continue to do so in the future."
© 2011 AFP