“The Wall Street Journal”: “Putin Shows Russia He Is at the Wheel”


Russian Leader Hits the Road to 'Talk To the People,' Support State Projects.

Russian Leader Hits the Road to 'Talk To the People,' Support State Projects.

Over a string of media appearances during a four-day road trip across Siberia, a confident Vladimir Putin made clear he is still Russia's dominant politician and kept open the possibility he might return as president in 2012.

Mr. Putin reaffirmed that he will decide jointly with President Dmitry Medvedev who will run for the top job in the next elections.

"When the time comes, we'll determine how to act," Mr. Putin told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, speaking from behind the wheel of the canary-yellow Lada Kalina compact he drove for part of the trip.

"The main thing is [to make sure] these problems around 2012 don't pull us off the path of this stable development," Mr. Putin told the Kommersant newspaper.

Asked if he had any regrets about mistakes made during his decade in power, he said no. "What we're doing convinces me that we're on the right track." The two leaders' tight control of the political system virtually guarantees victory for the Kremlin's chosen candidate.

Mr. Putin, who became Russia's most popular politician during two terms as president, stepped down because of term limits in 2008, backing Mr. Medvedev, a longtime protégé. Mr. Medvedev promptly appointed Mr. Putin as prime minister. Mr. Putin is widely regarded as the more powerful figure even now, though Mr. Medvedev has shown signs in recent months of greater autonomy.

But in Mr. Putin's weekend appearances, which were heavily covered in state media, the prime minister showed little deference, weighing in on traditionally presidential issues.

He questioned Washington's commitment to "resetting" relations with Moscow, though he said he believed President Barack Obama's desire for a new approach is genuine. He also defended violent crackdowns on unauthorized opposition demonstrations, saying concessions by the authorities would only encourage what he called "provocations."

At a lunch with Russian reporters on Monday outside the city of Chita, Mr. Putin dismissed as "complete baloney" suggestions that he is still running the country.

"Dmitry Anatolievich [Medvedev] is doing a quality job. Why should I interfere? It's not a hobby. I don't see anything that would cause concern or alarm," he said, adding that the two frequently consult. He said he is "bored" with foreign policy-a key presidential prerogative.

But in the interview with Kommersant, Mr. Putin weighed in on a major international issue, saying he supports the "reset" in relations with the U.S. and believes Mr. Obama does, too. But he questioned U.S. moves he described as going against its spirit, such as arms sales to Russian rival Georgia and U.S. plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe. "Where's this reset? In this area, we don't see it," he said.

In contrast to his more cerebral protégé, Mr. Putin, 57 years old, has cultivated an image as an active, hands-on leader. This month, he was shown piloting a fire-fighting plane and chasing whales with scientists in a rubber boat in the Pacific. Mr. Medvedev last week was at his seaside residence in Sochi, meeting foreign leaders and having tea with Bono, singer from the rock group U2.

But even by Mr. Putin's standards, the weekend road trip was remarkable. The route stretched over 1,240 miles from Khabarovsk, near the Pacific Coast, to Chita, an industrial city north of the Mongolian border. Mr. Putin was behind the wheel of the Russian-made car about half the distance and in a minivan for the rest, his spokesman said. He traveled a soon-to-be-completed stretch of a highway that he touted as "historic"-the first paved road linking eastern and western Russia.

"He's showing that he's not going anywhere," said Alexei Makarkin, a political consultant at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "That in one form or another he will remain in power."

Mr. Makarkin said the two leaders appear to be able to agree on most major issues and that differences in emphasis aren't signs of tension but of a division of labor. "They're not competitors," he said. "They're playing to different audiences." Mr. Medvedev's calls for modernization play better with the urban middle class and elites, while Mr. Putin's message of stability appeals to the masses, where his support remains strong.

At a meeting Sunday with the workers building the road, one asked hopefully if he would return as president in 2012. Mr. Putin thanked him for his support but didn't answer.

Though the trip bore the hallmarks of a Western-style campaign tour, a spokesman denied any political motivation. "It's connected to the work of the prime minister," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, noting that Mr. Putin wanted to inspect the construction of the road, which he has supported for years, and "talk to the people" along the route.

There were plenty of chances for that. At a roadside monument, a group of women invited Mr. Putin for tea and buns-and asked him when they would get permanent housing. At a truck stop, Mr. Putin let a trucker take his Lada for a spin-a production model with custom paint detailing, the prime minister said-before he climbed around the cabs of the big rigs parked there. He gave a sales pitch for locally made trucks. But the drivers were more concerned about the lack of repair shops and cellphone service along the remote road, where winter temperatures drop to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mr. Putin also made stops to tout his government's work on infrastructure projects. He opened an oil pipeline to China, unveiled a plaque marking the start of construction of a space center and, in what local officials said was a tradition, threw his watch into the wet cement for a new hydroelectric dam.

By Gregory L. White