Putin to field Russians' questions in Q&A session

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MOSCOW, Oct 18 (Reuters) More than a million Russians have applied to quiz President Vladimir Putin in a live question-and-answer session today that he holds annually to show he is in touch with the nation, the organisers said.

Kremlin-watchers will be following the event, which starts at 1350 hrs IST, carefully for clues on what Putin plans after he steps down next year: whom he will endorse to succeed him and what role Putin himself will take to preserve his influence.

The question-and-answer session is being run for its sixth year.

Russians submit questions by Internet, telephone hotline or mobile phone message. Putin then answers a selection of them in an event broadcast live on state television and radio.

Traditionally, the questions have focused on bread-and-butter issues.

In 2005, a pensioner told Putin she had to haul water to her home in buckets. In a touch of populism, the government soon after sent in engineers to give her running water.

A selection of questions on the organisers' Web site, www.president-line.ru, suggested citizens this year were preoccupied with issues including rising utility bills, healthcare and students' stipends.

The site said that by 10:30 (1200 IST) today, 1.607 million questions had been submitted.

''I plan to give birth to my second child in December and am already having to join a queue for a nursery place. I was told ...

there was no guarantee my unborn child would get a place. What should I do?'' was one question posted on the site.

The session is almost certain to be Putin's last before he steps down as president next year, when his second term ends. The constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive stints.

Putin has said he will endorse the person he thinks is best suited to replace him. Opinion polls suggest that given Putin's personal popularity, that person will be the overwhelming favourite to win March 2008 presidential election.

With three months to go before the deadline to register candidates in that vote, every Putin pronouncement is watched minutely for hints about whom he favours for the job.

Analysts say newly appointed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov are front-runners, but that Putin could equally spring a surprise.

The Russian leader, who is 55, has said he will retain influence after he leaves the presidency.

He said earlier this month it was possible he could become prime minister. Some observers say he is leaving open the possibility of returning to the presidency at a later date.

Reuters AE DB1340

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