MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to be re-elected for a fourth term in next weekend's ballot, has said he has no plans to change the Constitution to stay in the Kremlin beyond 2024.
Asked by US television network NBC whether he would follow in the footsteps of China's Xi Jinping, who is eyeing a limitless tenure, Mr Putin insisted he had no such intentions.
"I never changed the Constitution, I did not do it to suit myself and I have no such plans to do so today," he said in an interview whose transcript was released by the Kremlin on Saturday (March 10).
Critics accuse Mr Putin, who was first elected President in 2000 and is running for a fourth term in March 18 polls, of harbouring ambitions to stay in power indefinitely.
The Constitution bars him from serving more than two presidential terms in a row.
In 2008, Mr Putin became prime minister but maintained his grip on power, with his protege Dmitry Medvedev serving as President until 2012 when Putin returned to the Kremlin in the face of huge opposition protests.
He rejected suggestions that he could not quit power because it would put him in danger, saying he heard "a lot of ravings on this subject".
"Why do you think after me power in Russia will be necessarily taken over by people who are ready to destroy everything that I have done over the past years?" Mr Putin said.
He said he had been thinking about his potential successor since 2000.
"It never hurts to think, but at the end of the day it will be the Russian people who will decide that," he added.
Mr Putin will run against a motley crew of seven challengers, with his top critic Alexei Navalny barred from contesting the poll because of a criminal conviction his supporters call punishment for challenging the strongman.
Mr Putin declined to say whether he could pardon Navalny.
"Any man can be pardoned if he deserves this," said Mr Putin.
The Russian President, who never called Navalny by his name in public, referred to the 41-year-old opposition politician as "certain political forces".
"What do I like in principle? It's that they expose problems and this is good, indeed it's right," Mr Putin said.
"But it's not enough for the country's positive development. Because concentrating one's attention on problems, it's not only insufficient, it's even dangerous because it could lead to certain destruction and we need creation." .
Mr Putin also denied having close ties to businessman and restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russians indicted by US prosecutors for allegedly running a secret campaign to tilt the 2016 US vote in favour of Mr Donald Trump.
"He is not my friend," Mr Putin said. "I know such a man but I don't count him among my friends."
Dubbed "Putin's chef", Prigozhin is thought to be running a Saint Petersburg-based "troll farm" accused by Washington of interfering in the 2016 election.
He has also been linked to a hugely secretive private military company, dubbed Wagner, whose mercenaries fight in Syria and were involved in a direct clash with US troops there in early February.
"We don't support him in any way, we are not standing in his way or helping him. That's his personal initiative," Mr Putin said.
Mr Putin denied that Russia has meddled in the US election, but said he would "not care" even if individual Russians had been involved.
"I could not care less because they do not represent the state," he said, adding that Russia would not extradite them.
Instead, Mr Putin said, the US should sign a cyber security pact with Russia if it wanted Moscow to look into the matter in earnest.