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Associated Press Photo Friday 18 February 2000

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his respects at a memorial service for victims of a 1997 plane crash during his visit to Irkutsk, Friday, Feb. 18, 2000. Putin, tipped to win next month's presidential poll, hit the campaign trail in Siberia on Friday, plugging his favourite theme of a strong state and dropping in at a local orphanage. (AP Photo/ Viktor Korotayev)

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Copyright 1996-2000 Associated Press

  Putin Calls for Property Guarantees

By Katya Trunova
Associated Press Writer
Friday, Feb. 18, 2000; 5:03 p.m. EST

IRKUTSK, Russia Saying censorship has no place in a true democracy, acting President Vladimir Putin on Friday called for reforms including guarantees for private property and limitations on parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Although opinion polls show Putin widely favored to win the presidency in March 26 elections, his stance on many issues has remained vague since he took over when Boris Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31. He was largely unknown among the public before becoming prime minister last August.

His ascent has coincided with mounting pressure on newsrooms across Russia, but Putin said Friday that "any censorship undermines a democratic society," the Interfax news agency said.

Earlier, Putin said firm legal protection of property-owners' rights was essential to the country's economic development.

"We should move away from the situation in which the state first issues guarantees and then insists on revising them," Putin said during a visit to Irkutsk, an industrial center in eastern Siberia. "Without that, we will not be able to create a normal investment climate in Russia."

Putin also said he favored limiting parliamentary immunity only to the terms when lawmakers were in office. According to current law, lawmakers cannot be prosecuted on charges predating their parliamentary service, unless their fellow legislators vote to strip them of immunity.

The reform-oriented Union of Right Forces party had proposed a referendum on those and other key issues. But the Central Electoral Commission rejected the initiative on Thursday, saying the party had failed to gather enough valid voter signatures backing the plebiscite.

"We can't do anything about that," Putin said. However, he added that he "essentially" supported the referendum proposal.

Putin avoided a clear answer on another question the reformers had hoped to put on the referendum, on limiting the president's powers in dismissing the government.

Instead, Putin argued that only a strong presidency could guarantee civil freedoms in Russia.

"We must create such a society and such forms of government that would not stifle democracy. But there must be one distinct institution to guarantee citizens' rights and freedoms, and only the institution of the presidency can ensure that," he said.

Putin flew to Irkutsk, about 2,600 miles east of Moscow, on Thursday. He met with regional officials and toured a children's home that suffered in the 1997 crash of a military cargo plane. At least 69 people were killed in the accident.

He called for more intense economic development in Siberia.

The region "holds more than three-quarters of mineral and other resources in Russia, the main electric power production power and forest resources. But its economic achievements remain very modest," Putin told regional leaders. "The living standards here are worse than those in the country as a whole."

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press