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    Three and a half hours - and nothing beyond the limit

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Vavra) -Vladimir Putin's phone-in session on October 18 was set to beat all previous records, as appropriate for the president of a country in the middle of an economic boom. And so it did. While the previous session lasted 2 hours 54 minutes, this one has set a new high, 3 hours 5 minutes.

    The previous call-in show featured over 50 questions. This time there were 68.

    More than half of them dealt with social issues. However, this trend was traceable from all past shows.

    Putin answered all questions that interested his audience, ranging from farm produce dealers in the regions to the construction of a new nuclear-powered submarine.

    They also included growing food prices and the country's economic prospects, the Putin Plan, indexing military pensions, the new Cabinet and its record, problems related to Russky Island in the Far East, the fight against terrorism, international political issues, particularly the deployment of an American missile defense system in Europe, the soccer match between Russia and England, and many other things.

    Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov was firmly convinced that during the show the president would not break the law and would not indulge in electioneering.

    A provocative question was put to Putin: why did he decide to head United Russia's electoral ticket? "It is very important that we should have a capable parliament after 2007 elections," Putin said. "In previous years, United Russia was the key element of such a parliament. That was why I made up my mind to lead its ticket," he said.

    He simply described the party as a key element to a capable executive agency. He did not tell his listeners to vote for it. Churov, who was immediately consulted by the media, said no law had been broken.

    The president showed a firm grasp of issues that seemed to be outside his direct brief. His readiness to explain the techniques of resolving many problems worrying the general population was also surprising.

    Take, for example, artificial insemination. The president believes the financing of free artificial insemination in Russia should be tripled from the current 200 million rubles allocated by the state to 600 million a year. The federal budget today subsidizes about 1,700 artificial insemination operations a year, each of which costs 150,000 rubles. "The operations are carried out only at two federal medical centers, but there are about 50 institutions capable of performing them. In effect, money is the main issue," said Putin. The problem appears to be crucial for Russia, which is now taking measures to stabilize the demographic situation.

    It would seem the matter was within the competence of Health and Social Development Minister Tatiana Golikova. There is no doubt she could have answered it in equally great detail. But even if she had repeated the president's answer word for word, there would have been doubts. And it would be the same with regard to questions put to any other minister - whether Kudrin, Nabiullina, or Levitin. The president is the only newsmaker in the country who enjoys real confidence. Ours is a large land, there are many knowledgeable and competent people in it, but you believe only one.

    Russia's overseas partners will no doubt be interested in Putin's remark concerning the deployment of elements of a U.S. missile shield in Europe. Putin was calm and precise in stating the issue: "We are looking for ways to solve the problems and ways of alleviating our concerns, so I do not think we should aggravate the situation." And "if the decision is made without taking Russia's opinion into account, we will undertake reciprocal steps, which will no doubt ensure the security of the Russian people," the president said.

    And such steps are already being planned. "But the details are the prerogative of specialists, particularly the General Staff," Putin said.

    After the end of the live show the president traditionally replied to questions put to him by the journalists who presented the show. Naturally, their questions focused on politics rather than social affairs, particularly the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, an issue that is of great interest to the media and the Russian elite.

    There is one vacancy in the higher echelons that has evoked a certain interest - the post of Security Council secretary. Everyone wanted to know why the appointment had not been made and there was only an "acting" executive. Did it mean - such a likelihood was briefly mooted in the media - that the council's functions could be broadened and might provide a haven for Putin to stay on after the end of his presidential term? But the president firmly replied he was planning no reform of the council. So this dispensed with one more possible job for him.

    Putin also considers it very useful to have a left and a liberal opposition in the Duma. But here not everything depends on the president's wishes. At any rate, Russia is certain to have no liberal opposition in the Duma after these elections. The left opposition will, of course, be there, but the question is, which party will represent it.

    And, finally, the main thing. "I am against the curtailment of presidential powers," Putin said, thus putting paid to speculation about the White House gaining increased authority after his departure. Certainly, it is necessary to have a more effective interface between all branches of government, but "in the near future a realignment of power within the executive branch would be a mistake," he said.

    All in all, whatever may be said about the structure of political power with Putin gone, it will be neither here nor there. But only Putin himself knows exactly what is going to happen. He could have talked for five or even 10 hours, but would not have stepped beyond the limit as far as key information was concerned.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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