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Putin Cites His Successes With an Eye to Upcoming Elections

The Russian president also criticizes the prime minister, which some see as ominous.

May 17, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin delivered a nationally televised speech Friday widely regarded as the opening salvo of his reelection campaign, citing the successes of his three years in office and calling on Russia to double the size of its economy in a decade.

"Over this period of three years, we have substantially cleared the logjams of problems," Putin told lawmakers at the Kremlin in his annual state of the nation address. "Now we have to make the next step. All our decisions and all our actions must aim at securing Russia a place among strong, economically developed and influential countries in the very near future."

Putin portrayed a nation poised to rebuild its military strength, refine its fledgling democracy and overcome the poverty that afflicts a quarter of the population.

But to achieve this, he said, there must be a "consolidation of political forces" -- what critics saw as code for a dominant political party that would boost his own power. Parliamentary elections are set for December and presidential balloting for March, with Putin a strong favorite to win a second four-year term.

Listing the economic achievements of the last three years, Putin rattled off a string of bright statistics: economic growth of 20%; average real incomes up by 32%; per capita consumption in 2002 at the highest level in Russia's history; foreign exchange and gold reserves soaring to an all-time high of $61 billion from just $11 billion; and surplus grain production for the first time in half a century.

But the president also bluntly pointed to problems that continue to fester in Russia, including a continuing decline in life expectancy, from 67 years in 1999 to 64 in 2002, and the spread of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. He also noted that after nearly 10% growth in 2000 (and about 5% in 2001), the economy expanded last year by barely more than 4%.

For rapid, sustainable growth, "everything must be competitive: goods and services, technologies and ideas, business and the state itself, private companies and state institutions, entrepreneurs and public servants, students, professors, science and culture," he said.

In comments that some saw as carrying politically ominous overtones, Putin blasted the failure of the government headed by Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov to carry out "vital administrative reform" aimed at streamlining the bureaucracy and making it more effective.

"Apparently, the government needs to be helped," he said. "Apparently, it needs an additional political impetus. Of course, it will get it."

The hourlong speech was "definitely the beginning of the presidential campaign," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank. "And it seems as if Putin already decided that now, as the campaign unfolds, all the shortcomings will be blamed on Kasyanov. The key phrase was that 'the government needs to be helped.' It is a typical KGB cliche, which can mean a lot of things."

Kasyanov -- generally seen as imposed on Putin by power brokers close to former President Boris N. Yeltsin -- has now publicly been given "a black mark from the president," Piontkovsky said. "I think Kasyanov will be fired in September or October."

Although he offered few details about foreign policy issues, Putin reiterated support for the United Nations and took an apparent swipe at U.S. and British policy in Iraq.

"Nuclear weapons continue to spread in the world. Terrorism is threatening peace and the security of our citizens. Strong and well-armed national armies are sometimes used not to combat this evil but to expand certain countries' zones of strategic influence," he said.

He also called for "substantial rearmament" as part of broad military reforms that would create professional units within an army still dependent partly on draftees.

"Work to create new types of Russian weapons, weapons of a new generation, including those regarded by specialists as strategic weapons, is in the practical implementation stage," he said.

After the speech, Boris Y. Nemtsov, the liberal leader of the Union of Right Forces party, expressed concern about Putin's call for "consolidation" in politics.

"It would be very unpleasant to see everything end up with the restoration of a one-party system," Nemtsov said.

"There were some good and right words," he added. "But in 10 years, we will have a different president who will make a different state of the nation address. This is a tune that did not appeal to me very much. Russia's experience, as well as that of the Soviet Union, shows that as soon as we start making grand plans for a period of 10 years, it automatically means that nothing will be done."

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