Vladimir Putin plans TV phone-in

Russian prime minister to answer questions

MOSCOW — Speculation that Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin has been boosted after it emerged he is to continue a tradition of a live nationwide televised question and answer session in January.

Putin, who established the tradition during his two terms as president before stepping down to make way for Dmitri Medvedev earlier this year, will go on state channel Rossiya early in the new year to answer questions selected from email and a studio audience.

Putin will appear in his position as leader of United Russia — the Kremlin loyalist party that has a majority in Russia’s parliament — rather than prime minister, party officials told Russian media.

Although this is designed to avoid giving the impression that Putin is upstaging President Medvedev, the broadcast is likely to further fuel speculation that he is planning an early return to the Kremlin.

Medvedev’s surprise announcement earlier this month during his first state of the nation address that he wanted to see the presidential term extended from four to six years, lead to a flurry of reports that Putin could return as early as next year — and stay for a two-term period of 12 years.

Changing the presidential term, which Medvedev said this week was something he had long considered, requires a change to Russia’s constitution.

That has not deterred Russia’s parliament from rushing through approval during the first two of three readings of the bill. It is expected to approve it on Friday when it will be referred to the upper house of parliament.

Kremlin staffers always claimed that the questions put to Putin during the Q&A sessions as president were taken at random, although truly controversial topics rarely figured. In 2007 Putin answered 69 questions during a three hour session. Some 2.5 million questions had been submitted, officials said.

Many media observers regard Putin’s eight years as president between 2000 and 2008 as the worst period for press freedom in Russia since Soviet times. Critical television stations were hounded to closure and critical newspaper editors sacked.

Russia is now the world’s third most dangerous place for reporters, with 49 journalists dying in the past six years, a record only beaten by Iraq and Algeria.

In the week that the trial began in Moscow of four men accused of implication in the murder two years ago of campaigning anti-Chechen war journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the editor of a small weekly paper near Moscow and persistent critic of local authorities, Mikhail Beketov, was beaten into a coma and later had a leg amputated. Telephone threats continued as he lay in hospital, forcing a move to a more secure institution.

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