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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

From The New York Times, December 24, 2001 RUSSIA: Putin Answers Russians´ Questions Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the nation in an unprecedented 2 1/2-hour question-and-answer session Monday, and got an earful in the live TV broadcast over matters ranging from miserably low salaries to traffic cops taking bribes.Putin has given plenty of interviews during his nearly two years in office and often met with ordinary people during his trips across Russia´s vast expanse -- usually encountering adoring faces and occasionally, the elderly woman who will stroke him softly across the cheek as she praises his leadership. But this appearance was the first of its kind in terms of its length and lack of stage management.Putin said some of his advisers were opposed to the broadcast, which involved a live hookup with residents of 11 Russian cities as well as questions by telephone and Internet. He said he ignored their warnings because he wanted to get feedback on his policies.``I believe that a country´s leader must speak to people and listen to their opinion,´´ he said.He certainly got opinions. From the Vladivostok university student who said there was a lot of talk about reform but little change in real life, to the retiree who begged the president to help people live, ``not just survive,´´ Putin heard a litany of complaints about salaries, the lack of heating and electricity in many regions, and miserly state funding for such sectors as scientific research, education, medicine and the defense industry.He directed his subordinates to look into two personal hardship cases raised by questioners: a pension that had not increased in spite of new regulations and a village that had not been included in the regional gas grid.The latter got prompt attention. Before the broadcast was over, Putin read aloud a report from the state-affiliated Gazprom natural gas giant saying the village, in the southern region of Krasnodar, would be hooked up next month.Corruption also came up repeatedly. Several men asked about police providing a ``roof´´ -- protection -- to criminals and one pointed at the notorious bribe-taking record of the Russian traffic police.``I know that this problem exists, and there are no simple solutions,´´ Putin said. ``Corruption in law enforcement exists in other countries, not just in Russia. But in Russia, it has reached a magnitude where the government can´t ignore it.´´He said bills recently approved by the Russian parliament would introduce a judicial reform to help protect people´s rights and remove the foundation for corruption.Aided by a computer screen, Putin reeled off figures on salaries, grain harvests and inflation. Wages are up 21 percent, unemployment is down and births are up, reflecting Russians´ optimism in the future, he said. Occasionally, he broke up the recitation of his government´s achievements and challenges with a wry joke. Asked whether he felt any qualms about his close relationship with the leader of the country seen as the ``main opponent´´ during his days as a KGB agent, he jokingly said it was President Bush who should feel concern.``I did not feel uneasy when I spent the night at Bush´s ranch,´´ Putin said with a smile. ``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.´´Putin said he thought relations with Washington would continue to improve despite the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- a decision Putin has called a mistake.``The withdrawal can´t affect our relations, because it doesn´t pose a direct threat to our national security,´´ Putin said. ``Russia will not do anything that may cast a shadow on our relations.´´Asked about the military´s inability to track down rebel warlords in breakaway Chechnya, Putin said the need to avoid hurting civilians makes the task difficult. Chechen residents and international human rights groups, however, report beatings, torture, and killings of civilians by federal troops during their regular security sweeps across Chechnya.Although his answers to most questions were lengthy and sometimes technical, Putin´s responses to personal queries were curt, in keeping with his usual, businesslike manner. Was he superstitious? No more than the next guy, he said. How does he relax, spending so much time at work? He engages in sports, he said simply.As to his first job, Putin said he´d earned his first wages as a summertime builder in the far northern Komi region during his student years, and earned a princely sum -- about one-fourth of what a car cost in those days. Offering a tiny glimmer of Putin the man, he confided that he´d squandered the money away -- but then he refused to say on what. The New York Times, December 24, 2001

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