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Putin urges cooperation with US, defends handling of economy

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for greater anti-terror cooperation with the United States and defended his economic policies against a background of rising discontent, in the first nationwide phone-in of his new Kremlin term.

Putin sought to project an image of a man in control since returning to the Kremlin in May 2012 in the face of unprecedented protests, but in the first hour of the marathon session still faced unusual criticism.

The organisers of the phone-in of Putin's third term sprung a major surprise by inviting former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who was dramatically fired in 2011, to pose a question to Putin.

Putin also expressed hope that this month's deadly Boston marathon bombings -- blamed on two suspects of ethnic Chechen origin -- would result in closer cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the fight against terror.

"I hope this tragedy pushes us closer to one another in stopping shared threats," Putin said, arguing that Russia was also a victim of "international terrorism".

But Putin criticised excessive "speculation" about the Boston suspects' Chechen origins as a possible motivation for their embrace of terror.

"It is not about nationality or belief," he said. "It is about extremist moods of those people."

The phone-in has become a traditional event during Putin's 13-year domination over Russia, usually lasting up to five hours as the strongman fields questions on everything from plumbing in Siberia to Kremlin's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Russia is currently going through a critical moment in its post-Soviet development, with society seeing unprecedented change but the Kremlin hitting back with tough laws and the economy also starting to show troubling signs of weakness.

Speaking in front of a cherry-picked audience including decorated officers and rural paramedics, Putin sat alone behind a desk with several papers, a laptop, a few pens and a glass of water in front of him.

Kudrin, who stepped down following a public spat over state spending plans, told Putin that his government currently did not have a strategy to wean Russia's economy off oil and gas.

"A system of half measures and half reforms will not work today," the darling of foreign investors told the Russian president.

A smiling Putin for his part lamented that his former colleague from Saint Petersburg, who has expressed support for the anti-Kremlin opposition, refused his invitation of a state post.

"Slacker. He doesn't want to work," he quipped as Kudrin chuckled in the audience.

Speculation had swirled earlier in the week that Putin would invite Kudrin back to work as an advisor to improve Russia's battered investment climate.

The longest-serving finance minister of any major world power, Kudrin controlled Russia's purse strings since the first months of Putin's presidency in 2000 until he was fired.

Putin for his part also took issue with the more austere budgetary measures backed by liberal economists like Kudrin to cut spending and keep the deficit down.

"Harsh measures in the economy that do not look at the consequences in the social sphere are not always justified. Especially in our country, where the incomes of our citizens are still very modest," said Putin.

Putin faced a barrage of questions from the television anchors and ordinary Russians about whether he was happy with the government led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But he shot down speculation that Medvedev's government would be soon shown the door, despite growing concerns about the economy which only grew 1.1 percent this year.

"Barely a year has passed. We need to give people a chance to realise their potential," he said.

He admitted however that his campaign promises would be hard to fulfil as the country's economy was slowing down. "I deliberately raised the bar high," Putin said.

Ahead of his comeback to the Kremlin, Putin had promised salary hikes for state workers, saying that by 2018 the income of university teachers, professors and doctors will stand at 200 percent of the national average.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130425/putin-urges-cooperation-us-defends-handling-economy