Russian PM Putin defends bid for presidency
The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has defended his decision to stand in next year's presidential election.
He denied it was a quest to retain personal power, insisting that he needed longer to raise living standards and make Russia stronger.
He is the overwhelming favourite to return to the position he first held 12 years ago.
But critics say his political influence is an increasingly destructive force.
However, at a dinner in Moscow with foreign specialists on Russia, Mr Putin vigorously defended himself.
It has become a tradition: The annual face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin granted to foreign experts invited by the Russian government to discuss the state of Russian politics as part of the so-called Valdai club.
Sometimes he summons us to his Black Sea villa in Sochi. Sometimes the encounter is at a government guest house outside Moscow.
This year, for a change, we were taken to the livery yard in the countryside outside Moscow where Prime Minister Putin keeps his horses.
In the stables a magnificent white mare tossed her long mane coquettishly. Curious stallions peered down at us. One poked out his nose, apparently hoping for a carrot. At the Manezh nearby, expert riders were practising dressage. Outside thick flakes of snow fell steadily.
In the newly-opened French restaurant attached to the complex, we found an open fire awaiting us. Leather-bound fake books and a grand piano added to the convivial atmosphere. Behind glass cabinet doors, there was an impressive array of Armagnac with labels going back to the 1880s. Nothing but the best for Russia's soon-to-be once-again president.
"We thought it would be more cosy to meet here," explained one of his aides, "less formal than a government guest house."
After three-and-a-half hours Mr Putin himself appeared. His aides gave the excuse that he preferred to wait till the Friday night rush hour subsided, since Moscow drivers caught in traffic jams got irritated when his governmental cortege, flanked by outriders and police cars, overtook them all.
In he walked, and shook hands with everyone. At the table, as usual, he drank tea and ignored the food, holding forth with vigorous attention on a wide array of topics.
Top priority for many of those present was the recent news that he planned to come back as president. If he wins next year's elections as expected, in theory he could be Russian president till 2024 - in power one way or another for nearly a quarter of a century.
A debate with Moscow-based colleagues earlier in the week had already been illuminating. Many former Putin supporters seemed aghast at the prospect of the man who had already ruled them for 12 years coming back for more.
There was much talk of stagnation, rampant corruption, and a dangerous political inertia that some thought might eventually lead to a social explosion. Opinion polls reflect a growing malaise at the wide gap between the obscenely rich and the tragically poor, exacerbated by a belief that Russia these days is being ruled by a mafia-like clan which is more interested in enriching itself than helping solve the country's problems.
All this was dismissed by Mr Putin. He energetically defended the plan to swap places with Dmitry Medvedev. It was not about hanging on to power, he said, and all about the weak state of Russia's institutions.
"We'd like there to be more internal resilience, so we can hand over power with a politically mature system. But it's not easy and it takes time," he said.
"We weren't dissembling, Medvedev and I, when four years ago we said what happens next will depend on what the political situation is.
"Both of us, we're not after personal power in this, we just want to build a stronger system."
Stability, for Mr Putin it seems, is the top priority - the means to protect the country from itself and from foreign enemies and the key to future prosperity. His argument is based on his record over the last 12 years. Russia, he said, had seen living standards double, a dangerous "civil war" in the Caucasus had been ended and Russia's economy had been saved from virtual collapse.
Lack of leaders
Some say a bonanza in oil prices is part of that equation. Mr Putin prefers to see it as the result of work by a strong and skilled leader who drives change from above - like, for example, his good friend Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
In his eyes, the prospect of Mr Berlusconi stepping down as Italian prime minster is regrettable. Mr Putin called him "one of Europe's greatest politicians" whose many years in power had - much as he had in Russia - given Italy much needed continuity.
And if his career had latterly been plagued by sex scandals, well, that was deliberate - just Mr Berlusconi drawing attention to himself.
More telling still, Mr Putin argued that one of the problems in Italy, as in Russia, was finding suitable candidates capable of taking over the helm.
"Listen, take any country. Berlusconi is stepping down in Italy for example. Are there many politicians in Italy of his stature? Name me one.
"Or take the United States, there'll be elections there soon. But the Republicans win, well they could, but they haven't got a leader! Where are they? The whole American system needs changing.
"It doesn't mean if you've got 100 new people, they should all think they can be president. They can try, but finding people who are up to it isn't easy."
And that's the lesson Mr Putin seems to believe about himself. Far from holding Russia back, he seems convinced that he is the only leader who can hold the country together.
While some might argue that it is Russian society that is dynamic, and its politics regrettably stagnant, Mr Putin denies this.
Russia's political model might not be perfect, he argued, but that did not mean it would lead to a Brezhnev-style era of stagnation. Once he was in place as president again, we would see, his approach too would adapt to changes around him.