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Putin Webcast on BBC

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on a BBC News Online webcast answering questions that were e-mailed to the BBC and two Russian Web sites from users around the world.

Putin answered questions from users of BBC News Online ( www.bbc.co.uk) put to him by BBC correspondent Bridgit Kendall and two Russian journalists. The event was streamed from a Kremlin studio at 56k Real video and 28k audio. The BBC also broadcast a 45-minute television version of the event.

Putin representatives met BBC staff in London last year and proposed the webcast with the Russian leader. "The idea came from them," said Nic Newman, world editor of BBC News Online. "Putin is a new type of modern Russian leader who wants to show that he understand the benefits of modern technology," Newman said. Putin was comfortable with direct interaction from members of the public, including Russian citizens, said Newman.

The webcast began with a question about Putin's own Internet use. Putin said that the Internet was a "very promising" forum for interacting and communicating. He confessed, however, that due to "inbred laziness" he did not make use of the Internet himself, relying on aides to surf the Web for him.

Prior to the event, the BBC and Russian sites received 24,000 questions via e-mail, which they narrowed down to 10 questions each. Putin saw the questions in advance but did not veto any subject area. Every fourth question during the webcast was live.

Asked about Chechnya, Putin denied allegations that Russian forces have committed atrocities in the course of putting down a separatist rebellion. Putin also discussed the dangers of U.S. President George W. Bush pressing ahead with the "Son of Star Wars" program. The entire international systems of arms control would be jeopardized if the project continued, since it would contravene the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Russia's ratification of the Start II treaty was based on the ABM treaty, said Putin, and if one ceased to exist, so would the other.

Putin also revealed details of his personal life. He exercises regularly and loves classical music and French film.

BBC News Online's first world leader webcast was with Nigerian military ruler General Abubakar in April 1999. Next came South African President Thambo Mbeki, who faced tough questions from a South African doctor about the president's controversial views on the country's AIDS crisis. Pakistan leader General Musharaff faced a similarly tough treatment from an Indian journalist who grilled him about the India-Pakistan border conflict in Kashmir.

"What I find genuinely exciting about these webcasts is that ordinary people can ask questions based upon their own experience," said Newman. BBC News Online has put in bids for future webcasts with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

BBC News Online is primarily a text site, but the BBC sees streaming as a way of reaching new audiences, Newman said.

Only a small fraction of Russians have Internet access, but BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey said that Putin was using the webcast to reach a selective domestic audience. "With the Internet you reach a certain kind of Russian, and he knows it," Mulvey said. Bridgit Kendall said that Putin was "very relaxed" and that the webcast was good for his public relations. "He put across a good impression," said Kendall, "I think they will probably do it again."

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