MOSCOW - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is likely to win a third presidential term tomorrow, said in an interview released yesterday that he might run for president for a fourth time in 2018, which would lengthen his term as Russia’s paramount leader to 24 years.
“It would be normal, if things are going well, and people want it,’’ Putin said in an interview with the editors of six foreign newspapers. “And if people don’t want it and things aren’t going well, and a person clings to his chair and doesn’t want to give it away, and if, on top of that, he violates the law - that would not be normal.’’
“But I don’t know whether I want to remain for more than 20 years,’’ he continued, according to an official transcript of the meeting. “I have not yet made this decision for myself.’’
During the interview, Putin forcefully defended Russia’s position in the Syrian conflict but distanced himself somewhat from the government of President Bashar Assad, refusing to answer the question of whether Assad can survive as a leader.
State-controlled television gave heavy coverage to the three-hour interview, broadcasting video of Putin parrying questions from “the most authoritative foreign editorial offices.’’ After the interview ended, Putin brought the journalists with him to an ice rink to watch him play hockey. The editors were from Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan; no US publication was represented.
He discussed relations with the United States at length, however, saying the “reset’’ had yielded agreements on reducing stockpiles of strategic missiles, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, but had done “practically nothing’’ to allay Russia’s complaints about a planned US missile defense system.
Russia has long feared the system would compromise its nuclear deterrent, and Putin complained that under President George W. Bush, the United States proposed and then backed out of a deal that would have allowed Russian experts to monitor the system’s radars, to ensure they were oriented toward Iran and not Russia.
“As soon as one side comes under the illusion that it is invulnerable to a strike from the other side, there immediately arise both a number of conflicts and aggression,’’ Putin said. “Not because America is by definition an aggressive country, but because it is a fact of life. There is no way around it. And this worries us.’’
Putin came across as confident that he would not face destabilizing dissent after tomorrow’s election, despite a series of antigovernment protests that snowballed after parliamentary polls in December. He said the government had no plans to crack down on demonstrators, and that “on the contrary, [President Dmitry] Medvedev has just introduced an entire package of laws to Parliament which would liberalize our political system.’’
Near the end of the interview, Putin addressed one of the mysteries of Russian political life: his wife, Lyudmila, has virtually disappeared from public view, and there is little record of his two adult daughters. Lyudmila Putin was last seen in October 2010, when a census-taker visited the prime minister’s residence. Vladimir Putin allowed that his wife may not carry out the public duties of a first lady if he wins a third presidential term.
“I cannot say it’s easy for her to deal with this,’’ he said. “The modern media are quite ruthless and not everyone is prepared to allow this to pass through them. You can see that members of my family are not involved in politics or business. They aren’t involved in anything and I would like them to be left alone, too. This is connected with their personal welfare and security.’’