- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin went one on one with Russian citizens yesterday, answering a slew of questions in a live, 21/2-hour session broadcast on Russian state television.
The program, involving television linkups with 11 Russian cities and a stream of questions sent over the Internet beginning last week, was part of the Kremlin's campaign to bring the popular but still somewhat-remote leader closer to the people.
Mr. Putin used the opportunity to present a short list of the economic improvements his administration has achieved over the past year. He said real incomes had risen by 6.6 percent, and that the average wage had increased by up to 21 percent. Unemployment is down, and births are up, reflecting Russians' optimism about the future, he said.
Still, the majority of questions reflected dissatisfaction with low salaries and pensions, the lack of heating and electricity in many regions, and miserly funding for basic scientific research, medicine and the defense industry.
Mr. Putin, aided by a computer screen that allowed him to reel off figures on salaries, grain harvests and inflation, said his government was trying to cope with the problems, but it needed more time.
A young teacher in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, birthplace of former President Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin's predecessor, complained of what she called her "comical" salary.
A 10-year-old pupil in the Siberian city of Irkutsk named Pasha told the president his school had been closed for three weeks due to the lack of heating. Mr. Putin responded that adults on every level, from the local city administration to Moscow, would have to work harder to fix the problem.
The president directed his subordinates to look into two personal hardship cases that questioners raised: a pension that had not risen in spite of new regulations, and a village that had not been included in the regional gas grid.
Mr. Putin expressed optimism about continued improvement with the United States despite President Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Mr. Putin called a mistake. He said he had no qualms about his close relationship with the leader of the country identified as the "main opponent" during his days as a KGB agent.
"I didn't feel uneasy when I spent the night at Bush's ranch," he told one questioner. "I believe it was up to him to wonder what was going on if he allowed a former staff member of Soviet intelligence into his house."
Mr. Putin revealed precious little of his personal side other than the stamina to entertain questions for hours. He said he was no more superstitious than anyone else, that his main recreation was sports and that he earned his first wages as a builder during his student years, squandering them, though he refused to say on what.

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