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Europe

Outgoing President Putin Talks Tough to the End

Russian President Vladimir Putin went out swinging at his last annual press conference, taking verbal shots at Kosovo, NATO and election critics. Putin said he's proud of Russia's economic accomplishments.

Russian president Vladimir Putin gestures as he answers reporters' questions at the Round Hall in Moscow's Kremlin.

Putin claimed that there had been "no serious failures" on his watch

Putin might be nearing the end of his time as president, but he's in no danger of becoming irrelevant. After elections in two weeks, it's likely that Putin will take on a powerful new role as prime minister if his hand-chosen presidential successor is voted into office in two weeks.

It's widely assumed that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will win the upcoming March 2 elections.

More than 1,300 journalists packed the Kremlin's Round Hall for Putin's seventh and final annual press conference on Thursday, Feb. 14. Putin spoke on a raised platform between two giant television screens. He started the news conference by using statistics to describe Russia's economic boom.

"I do not see any serious failures," Putin told a questioner. "All the tasks we set ourselves have been achieved".

Stepping down, but not bowing out

A woman votes in the 2004 elections

Europe believes the elections are undemocratic

Putin, 55, claims he never considered trying to change Russia's constitution to allow him to serve more than two consecutive terms as president. Putin said it would be "absolutely unacceptable" for him to stay in power.

"Everyone must obey the law, first and foremost the head of the state," Putin said. "It's necessary not to shed tears that this period of work has finished but instead be glad for the opportunity to take up a new post in which to serve my country."

Prime ministers under Putin have had little power, but that is about to change. Putin said he understood the prime minister's responsibilities to include creating the budget as well as dealing with social questions, security and foreign policy.

"I know how the head of state's job is set up, and assure you that our relations will be quite harmonious. I will never step in for the head of the government. I consider that damaging and counter-productive," Putin said.

No personal gain

Woman examines chicken at a market

Putin said he's proud of Russia's economic progress

Putin also dismissed the suggestion that he's used the presidency to become one of Europe's wealthiest men. Reports have suggested Putin has made tens of billions of euros (dollars) during his presidency.

Putin said it's "nonsense" to suggest that he has profited behind the scenes from Russia's oil wealth. He doesn't collect money, but "emotions," he said.

The overwhelming support of the Russian people is his "greatest wealth," Putin said.

Unworried about election criticism

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attends a meeting

Medvedev has Putin's backing

The West has criticized the upcoming March 2 election as undemocratic, saying that Moscow has stifled the opposition.

"The fact it's going on quietly without debates, slowly, around the country does not speak to a lack of democracy in the country," Putin said. "Rather it speaks to the fact that a wide majority of the citizens of Russia support the chosen course."

Europe's security and human rights watchdog, the OSCE, decided against sending observers to monitor the election, citing restrictions Russian officials placed on its monitors. Putin criticized the OSCE of trying to "teach" Russia how to behave.

"Let them teach their wives to make cabbage soup," he said. "We will not let anyone force any conditions on us."

Kosovo independence "immoral"

Russian gas pipeline

Russia's natural resources are in high demand

The president did not mince any words on his disapproval of independence for Kosovo, calling the idea "immoral and illegal." The Serbian province is expected to declare unilateral independence in a matter of weeks.

Most European Union countries have promised to recognize Kosovo independence. Russia has backed Serbia's view that it has the legal right to maintain control of the southern province.

"The territorial integrity of states is enshrined in the principles of international law," Putin said.

The United Nations has run Kosovo since 1999, after a NATO air attack drove out Serbian forces who were fighting against separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas and their civilian supporters.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since mid-1999, after a NATO air assault drove out Serbian forces waging a brutal crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas and their civilian supporters.

Putin said Europeans have "double standards" on the issue.

"I don't want say anything that would offend anyone, but for 40 years northern Cyprus has practically had independence," Putin said. "Why aren't you recognizing that? Aren't you ashamed, Europeans, for having these double standards?"

Putin threatens to train missiles on Ukraine

Russian soldier with rockets

Russia remains an important military power

Putin also said Russia would target missiles at Ukraine if its national security came under threat. If Ukraine, which wants to join NATO, were to host NATO bases or elements of a missile shield advocated by the US, Russia would be "forced to aim missiles at those targets which we feel threaten our national security," Putin said.

"I am obliged to say this clearly and honestly. We do not want such a development of events," he told journalists at his annual Kremlin press conference.

So far there have been no plans for Ukraine to host such facilities. Russia views the possible expansion of the NATO military alliance, as well as a proposal to install an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Russia's threats towards the Ukraine "reprehensible" and "unacceptable."

Putin dismisses Cold War rhetoric

Despite his unequivocal opposition to NATO expansion and Kosovo independence, Putin said he was not trying to foment a new confrontation with the West.

"To suppose that we aspire to return to the times of the Cold War is just too bold a supposition," Putin said. "We are not interested in this. Our main tasks are internal development, the solution of social and economic problems of the country."

Additionally, Russia will not target any country with nuclear missiles except in "extreme necessity," Putin said.

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