President Vladimir Putin pledged on Thursday to give Russians a “free democratic choice” in presidential elections next year, and said he would only express his own preferences during the campaign. Putin’s second and final term of office ends in March 2008, and there is intense speculation about who the president may endorse to follow him. “There will be no successor,” Putin told his annual news conference in the Kremlin’s Round Hall. “There will be candidates for the post of president.” His personal poll ratings remain high.
Putin repeatedly hailed Russia’s economic might and forecast continued strong growth but denied that the country was using its financial muscle for political purposes. Russia has been criticised in the West for deploying its vast energy resources as a political weapon to reward allies and punish countries failing to toe the Kremlin’s line. “We are always told that Russia is using its … economic resources to achieve its foreign policy aims. This is not the case,” Putin said. Normally lasting several hours, Putin’s news conference comes at a time when Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest ebb in years following the murders of two fierce Putin critics last year and rows over energy policy.