PARIS (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin was treated like a president in Paris on his first visit to a Western capital as prime minister, reinforcing an impression that he still runs Russia even after leaving the Kremlin.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon called him “president” twice during a joint press conference, a newspaper ran a headline “A presidential visit for a prime minister” and Putin himself once appeared to forget his recent change of job.
“I think the president of France is no worse informed than the president of Russia … especially the former president of Russia,” Putin said to a question asking whether he persuaded Nicolas Sarkozy that Iran did not have nuclear weapons.
At a press conference, Putin dodged a question about human rights violations in Russia by saying such issues were the responsibility of the president.
But he took questions about foreign policy which is constitutionally the preserve of the Russian president.
“Your humble servant deals mainly with the economy and social issues now,” Putin said in an interview with French daily Le Monde. “But as a Security Council member I have something to do with the issues we discussed with the president (Sarkozy).
“But as far as distribution of powers inside Russia is concerned, the president has the final word,” he said.
Putin stepped down as president this month and handed over power to his chosen successor and longtime ally Dmitry Medvedev.
Many compatriots believe Putin continues to run Russia from his new power base as prime minister and leader of the biggest political party, United Russia.
While in France, Putin said it no longer mattered who was in charge in Russia. He said his party role was more important than his cabinet job.
“We are not going to play cheap politics. If we succeed … how the power is organized in its upper echelons is not so important,” he said.
“Today we have a competent professional team of specialists and politicians in the parliament who support us. We will try to maintain this unity for as long as possible,” Putin said.
Putin, 55, underwent a transformation from a mid-level KGB officer in the 1980s into a world leader who presided over a $1.7 trillion economy. He said it was hard work.
“You look much younger now,” the 80-year-old historical novelist Maurice Druon told Putin, who visited him on Friday.
“It’s probably the Parisian air,” said a beaming Putin.