Putin says Russia will survive "difficult period"
Rules out concessions to Kyiv on gas prices
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin predicted Thursday that Russia would weather the global economic crisis with "minimal losses" and he pledged to maintain rises in social spending and avoid a sudden devaluation, Reuters reported.
Facing questions about rising inflation, housing problems and job losses in an annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people, a somber Putin blamed the United States for "infecting" leading world economies with the crisis.
But he offered an olive branch to the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama. Russia could see "positive signals" that strained relations would improve after Obama took office, he said.
In the session, televised live from near the Kremlin, Putin praised NATO for not setting out a firm timetable for Georgia and Ukraine to join.
There were signs also, he said, that Obama`s team was reconsidering the deployment of an anti-missile system in eastern Europe -- something Russia has strongly opposed as a threat to its security.
"We hear that one should build relations with Russia, taking into account its interests," Putin said.
"If these are not just words, if they get transformed into a practical policy, then of course our reaction will be appropriate and our American partners will feel this at once."
There was no such comfort for neighboring Ukraine, which has angered Moscow by pursuing an aggressively pro-Western foreign policy and failing to pay its large gas bills on time.
Putin ruled out concessions to Kyiv on gas prices, saying it was already paying much less than other European countries and threatened to cut off supplies if any Russian gas was siphoned off during transit through Ukraine.
"If our partners do not follow agreements or illegally siphon off our gas from transit pipelines as they did in previous years, then we will be forced to cut deliveries. What else can we do?," he said.
Putin`s first telephoned question came from a man who said he had lost his job along with others in his town and asked how he could survive.
The prime minister said he was confident that the world economy would pick up and revive demand for Russian raw material exports; in the meantime unemployment pay was being increased.
"We intend to deliver on all our plans to increase social allowances," he added. "We are not going to revise this."
With speculation continuing about his possible return to the presidency, analysts are watching whether Putin can maintain his popularity in today`s harder times with voters who had trusted him during the previous 10 years of economic boom.
"We have good chances to go through this difficult period with minimal losses both for the economy and ordinary people," Putin said in opening remarks carried live by state television.
Putin instituted the broadcast when he was president and has decided to continue it in his new role. His hand-picked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, has given no indication since taking over in May that he plans any such similar session.
Russians, fearful of a repeat of the devastating 1998 economic crisis, have been withdrawing roubles from banks and buying dollars, putting pressure on the national currency.
Putin repeated government promises that there would be no sudden, sharp devaluation of the rouble and pledged to use gold and foreign exchange reserves to ensure this.
But he also said the state could take stakes in major Russian companies to help them combat the crisis. Such measures, he added, could be "rather large-scale."
Viewers and listeners submitted questions in advance to Putin on toll-free phone numbers, by text message, or via a special website. There were live television links to questioners in Russia`s regions, including military staff at a submarine-building facility in the Arctic.