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Putin Wins, Promises No Miracles

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with journalists at a polling station in Moscow, Russia. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / TASS

Vladimir Putin secured a narrow first-round win Monday in the presidential election, but met his victory with an immediate disclaimer that he had no miracles up his sleeve for the nation's battered economy.

Putin just squeaked past the 50-percent barrier for a first-round win with 52.64 percent, with 95 percent of the vote counted. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov came a stronger-than-expected second with 29.34 percent and liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky trailed with 5.84 percent.

"Everybody has a right to dream. But nobody should hope for miracles," Putin, wearing a crew-neck sweater, said at a televised briefing in his campaign headquarters early Monday. Looking tired after a week of non-stop touring of Russia's regions, Putin appeared daunted by the task ahead of him.

"The level of expectation really is very high ... people are tired, life is tough and they are waiting for a change for the better," he said. "But I don't have the right to say from now on miracles are going to happen. That will only lead to disappointment."

He said the only way to avoid the disillusionment that stamped the end of the Boris Yeltsin years was for the government to produce a clear plan of where the country was headed and for the people to participate in that process.

But Putin still lacks that clear plan. He conducted his entire campaign without revealing concrete details other than saying he was for strengthening the state, because he said he feared criticism and might lose votes. When journalists asked him earlier this month whether he was going to radically reform the way Russia works, he replied with an emphatic: "I'm not going to tell you."

An economic blueprint for reform for the next 10 years, currently being prepared by Putin's Center for Strategic Research, will be unveiled by May, aides said Monday. Some reports have said the plan would be ready for his inauguration speech, now expected around May 5.

Analysts warned Monday that producing a plan would not be an easy task.

"It's going to be difficult for Putin to deal with the vested interests of the financial elite and find a consensus for a future plan," said Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "And it seems Putin is not a fan of plans. He's a pragmatist who acts on expediency."

Putin's rise from virtual obscurity to the presidency took eight months. Early Monday, it seemed he still couldn't believe his eyes. "Even in my worst nightmares I never thought I would be taking part in a [presidential] election. It's a shameless business," he said, looking around the tightly packed hall.

"You always have to promise more than the opponent to make yourself look more successful. I could never imagine having to make promises knowing that I wasn't going to be able to fulfill them," he said.

Putin conceded that the success of his Communist rival proved the government still had a great deal to do to tackle the nation's social problems.

"To be honest, they [the Communists] did not have so many possibilities and access to media, especially electronic media," he said. "But there is still such a large part of the population that regularly votes for them.

"This means that the government should be more balanced in its policies, that they should reflect Russian realities and should be aimed at raising living standards," he said. "Only then will we stop fighting the Communists."

Putin offered an olive branch to his foes. He thanked them for supporting his war in Chechnya, which has remained popular despite heavy losses.

"Without the consolidation of society, we wouldn't have been able to attain the situation we have there [in the North Caucasus] now. But that was not through my efforts alone, it was achieved with the help of other prominent politicians who are well respected: Yevgeny Primakov, Yury Luzhkov and Gennady Zyuganov," he said.

"They never allowed themselves to attack the government line," Putin said.

He said the possibility of a coalition government with opponents Zyuganov and Yavlinsky was open for discussion.

"I will speak with them and if they are ready to work within the framework of the government program, then a post will be found for them," Putin said. "But if the talks are filled with rhetoric along party lines, then there is no room for these people."

The president-elect said he would insist on a team of like-minded people in the government. Alluding to a fairy tale, he said he would not allow his team to resemble "the notorious troika where one is pulling into the water, another one backward and the third one to the clouds."

Putin now has about six weeks to decide on a new Cabinet. First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said Monday the government will continue work as normal until the inauguration, when the entire Cabinet will resign.

Speculation about who might be appointed Putin's prime minister has been rife. Possible candidates bandied about in the press have included Putin's St. Petersburg allies Deputy Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and German Gref, the head of the Center for Strategic Research, as well as Kasyanov.

"Putin does not need a strong prime minister if he's going to be a strong president," former Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov said by telephone Monday. "Kasyanov may well keep his post. Putin needs a team of professionals."

A veteran of many Cabinets, Fyodorov said forming a solid team was now Putin's chief priority, but it was also important for the new president to distance himself from "the inheritance of the Yeltsin regime - from the oligarchs."

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