Russia's Putin says he plans to stay active in politics
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Monday that he plans to maintain an active role in Russian politics for years to come, but would not reveal whether he will stand in 2012 presidential elections.
Russia's political strongman, who was president from 2000 to 2008, also bluntly defended police action against banned anti-government protests, saying in an interview published in the Russian daily Kommersant that such protestors deserved to be pummelled.
Putin said he was not obsessed with the upcoming elections and had no "narcotic dependence" on political ratings.
However, he said: "I only have but two choices: either to watch from the bank how the waters are flowing away and how something is getting destroyed or lost -- or to get involved. I prefer to be involved."
There has been intense speculation that Putin, widely seen as Russia's most powerful leader after he handed over to his protege Dmitry Medvedev at the end of his presidency, may be plotting a return to the Kremlin.
Neither the 57-year-old ex-KGB agent or Medvedev, 44, have ruled out standing in the 2012 polls but they have said they would agree who would run so as not to compete with each other.
Asked about his interest in the elections, he said: "It interests me as much as... I was going to say 'as much as anyone', but really more than everyone else!"
"But I am not making a fetish out of it!" he said, without directly answering whether he planned to stand.
Both leaders have spent the summer engaging in high-profile photo opportunities, apparently to impress the electorate -- Medvedev sipped tea with Bono, the frontman of Irish rock band U2, while Putin chased grey whales during an adrenaline-packed journey to the Far East.
In the interview conducted while driving a canary-yellow Lada through Siberia late last week, Putin also said that building a stable, balanced state could take years and was not as simple as making pancakes.
"Some countries never manage to achieve this. And in others it drags on for dozens of years! It's not like flipping flapjacks!" he said, resorting to his trademark colloquial style.
Speaking to reporters on Monday as he continued his Siberian journey, Putin also denied he was the top decision-maker and said he fully endorsed Medvedev's decisions.
"That I continue to rule the country is a pack of lies," Putin was quoted as saying by Russia's Interfax news agency. "I am tired of being involved in foreign policy. At the same time, you should understand that a country's foreign policy is only as strong as its domestic policy," he said.
The country's opposition accuses Putin of stifling political freedoms and denying them the right to gather for peaceful demonstrations.
Putin however countered that the opposition was free to gather for protests as long as they were sanctioned. With typically tough rhetoric, he said that otherwise protesters deserved to be beaten.
"They need to obtain permission from the local authorities... If they go out without permission, they'll take a cudgel to the head. That's all there is to it," Putin said in the interview.
Authorities regularly use force to disperse anti-government protests in Moscow, even though the country's opposition is weak and fragmented and its protests usually do not attract large numbers.
This month activists staged a banned rock concert to protest controversial plans to build a motorway through a forest outside the capital -- the show attracted at least 2,000 people, a much larger turnout than in previous demonstrations over the issue.
Opposition politicians took issue with Putin's comments.
"You have to be a sadist and absolutely hate your people to call on police to apply special means," Boris Nemtsov, a former government minister turned fierce Kremlin critic, said on the popular Echo of Moscow radio station.
© 2010 AFP