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Putin on retiring: 'Don't count on that'

By Maxim Tkachenko, CNN
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Putin ponders his future
  • Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismisses notion of retiring at town hall forum
  • Putin: "Common principles" let him, President Dmitry Medvedev work well together
  • Putin calls George W. Bush a "very honest and nice person"
  • Putin says it will take time to overcome global financial crisis

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent a strong signal Thursday that he has full hands-on control of his country.

As part of his annual town hall forum, Putin spoke for four hours and fielded 80 questions out of 2 million-plus submitted on a live call-in program, "Conversation With Vladimir Putin -- Continued."

Responding to a question on whether he had any plans to retire and enjoy the life of an ordinary citizen, Putin tersely replied, "Don't count on that."

And when asked whether he plans to run for the presidency again in 2012, he said, "I will think about it. There is plenty of time for that."

Speaking of his "tandem" with President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin said he had "known him for many years, graduated from the same universities, having been taught by the same professors."

"Those common principles allow us to effectively work together," he said, responding to the never-ending speculation about which one of the duo is more important and whether a rift between them is possible.

Putin juggled a myriad of facts and statistics, giving instructions to subordinates along the way to fix problems, as he responded to questions mostly on Russia's domestic issues. These covered pensions, medication prices, the overhauling of entire industries and Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, Amur tigers and hip-hop music, and everything in between.

The program was broadcast live on government television and radio. It marked Putin's eighth annual year-end "town meeting," first launched in 2001 when he was president. This year's forum was his second as prime minister.

Representatives from all Russian industries as well as university students packed the auditorium in Gostiny Dvor, a large conference hall next door to the Kremlin, where Putin appeared.

Putin took questions from the hall's floor, with live cameras positioned in towns and cities across Russia, and he also responded to phone calls, e-mails and mobile SMS messages.

He started off by addressing the issue of terrorism, coming nearly a week after the derailment of a luxury Moscow-St.Petersburg express train, which left 26 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Russia's Federal Security Service said an improvised explosive device, which unknown bombers placed beneath the railroad bed, caused Friday's derailment. It was the biggest terror act outside Russia's troubled North Caucasus region since 2004.

"We did a lot [in recent years] to break the backbone of terrorism, but the threat has not been eliminated yet," Putin said. "The entire society, each of us, should be conscious of this threat and be vigilant."

Addressing the economy, Putin said the peak of the global economic crisis has passed, "although turbulent trends in the global and, as a result, the Russian economy, are still in place." "It will take time and effort to overcome the crisis," he said.

The past year has been "one of the most difficult" for Russia in this decade, Putin added, saying the 2009 gross domestic product will shrink by 8.5 percent to 8.7 percent. The slump in the country's industry will be even bigger, he said, around 13 percent, but the projected inflation for 2009 will be lower than in the past year, about 9 percent.

The prime minister also cited what he called "positive developments" in the Russian economy. He said some industries, such as military hardware production and agriculture, are even growing.

In the arena of international politics, Putin told a questioner that he and former President George W. Bush had a good relationship but have not been in touch. The prime minister described Bush as a "very honest and nice person," saying that if the ex-U.S. leader wanted to continue their relationship, he would be glad to do so.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the wide range of issues on which Russians posed questions "provides an excellent instrument for sociological study, and all questions that are being raised, are carefully studied. That [call-in show] gives a very reliable sociological survey."

Putin's popularity ratings at home demonstrates his political dominance in Russia. Confidence in the prime minister stood at 70 percent, as opposed to 59 percent for Medvedev, according to a recently published opinion poll conducted by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation.

While Putin had his town hall forum, Medvedev was holding meetings in Italy with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI.