Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he faced no credible high-profile political opponents as he prepared to run for re-election in March ass an independent candidate rather than with the backing of his traditional party.
In his first major public appearance since announcing he would seek a new six-year term in March 2018 elections, Putin said it was too early to set out his electoral program, but named priority issues, aside from helping forge what he called a flexible political system, as nurturing a high-tech economy, improving infrastructure, healthcare, education, productivity and increasing people’s real incomes.
The ruling United Russia party has traditionally backed Putin and is likely to do so again this time.
Earlier this month, Putin announced he would run for re-election in March 2018 - a contest he seems sure to win comfortably and extend his grip on power into a third decade.
Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000, longer than veteran Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and outstripped only by dictator Josef Stalin.
With an approval rating of around 80 percent if, as expected, he wins what would be a fourth presidential term, he will be eligible to serve another six years until 2024, when he turns 72.
Putin said he was aware he faced no real competition.
“The political environment, like the economic environment, needs to be competitive,” Putin told an audience of more than 1,600 Russian and foreign reporters gathered in a Moscow conference hall for his annual news conference.
“I will strive for us to have a balanced political system.”
He said he regretted the lack of competition, but accused his political opponents of failing to come up with any positive ideas to tackle Russia’s problems.
“It’s important not to just make noise on public squares and speak about the regime,” said Putin.
“It’s important to propose something to make things better. But when you start to compare what the leaders of the opposition are proposing, especially the leaders of the non-systemic (liberal) opposition, there are a lot of problems.”
US gripped by fabricated spymania
The Russian President rejected allegations of Russian interference in last year's US presidential election, saying that the United States was in the grip of a fabricated spymania whipped up by Trump’s opponents to undermine his legitimacy.
However, Putin expressed hope that US-Russia relations will normalize.
US intelligence agencies have concluded Putin ordered a campaign meant to influence the US vote with a preference for Trump to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump has said his campaign did not collude with Russia.
Putin also praised the US president for what he said were his achievements.
“I‘m not the one to evaluate the (US) president’s work. That needs to be done by the voters, the American people,” Putin told his annual news conference in Moscow, in answer to a question.
“(But) we are objectively seeing that there have been some major accomplishments, even in the short time he has been working. Look at how the markets have grown. This speaks to investors’ trust in the American economy.”
Putin expressed his concern over the United States pulling out of arms control agreements, while his country will continue to abide by the pacts. He also said Russia's military will develop as it needs to without getting into an arms race with the US.
Washington and Moscow had many common interests, he said, citing the Middle East, North Korea, international terrorism, environmental problems and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“You have to ask him (Trump) if he has such a desire (to improve ties) ... or whether it has disappeared. I hope that he has such a desire,” said Putin.
“We are normalizing our relations and will develop (them) and overcome common threats.”