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Russia's Putin Hits Campaign Trail in Siberia

Friday February 18 4:17 AM ET

Russia's Putin Hits Campaign Trail in Siberia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, tipped to win next month's presidential election, hit the campaign trail in Siberia on Friday, plugging his favorite theme of a strong state and dropping in at a local orphanage.

Russian television showed Putin, a usually taciturn ex-KGB spy, kissing children and helping them unwrap presents. Keen to show his human side, he also paid his respects at a memorial for victims of a 1997 plane crash in the city of Irkutsk.

Putin told regional leaders Siberia remained mired in poverty despite its rich natural resources. ``The economic successes of the region are modest...More than four million people live in extreme poverty,'' he said in televised comments.

Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying he wanted to encourage the creation of large companies able not only to extract the region's mineral resources but also to develop and sell them on Russian and world markets.

Interfax also quoted Putin as reiterating support for the creation of a new bank to support Russian agriculture.

Putin, cleared on Tuesday by Russia's Central Election Commission to run for president on March 26, has said he will unveil his program on February 25. He has given no details yet but has said he wants to focus on reviving Russia's moral fiber.

His remarks in Irkutsk suggested he favored an active role for the state in Russia's economy, although he also supported a call by the liberal Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) party for a referendum on private land ownership.

On Thursday the Central Election Commission turned down the SPS request on a legal technicality. Russian farmland remains largely in the hands of the state. Constitutional guarantees of land ownership apply mostly to small plots of land.

Putin also expressed support for SPS demands that deputies in the State Duma lower house of parliament forgo immunity from criminal prosecution. ``I believe there should not be absolute immunity (for lawmakers),'' Interfax quoted him as saying.

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