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THE WORLD : Medvedev talks like the anti-Putin : He scolds Russia for living off Soviet-era infrastructure and criticizes a foreign policy of 'nostalgia.'

November 13, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Russia is a country adrift, President Dmitry Medvedev told a vast audience that gathered Thursday beneath the gold chandeliers of the Kremlin to hear his state of the union address.

Russia is lounging on a crumbling network of leftover Soviet oil infrastructure and nuclear weapons, he said. Russia has conducted a foreign policy fueled by "nostalgia and prejudice," and law enforcement is riddled with "unscrupulous" agents, he added.

In a wide-ranging 100-minute speech, Medvedev seemed eager to set himself apart from former President Vladimir Putin, who molded Medvedev's career for years, preceded him in the Kremlin and is broadly understood to have kept his status as the most powerful figure in Russian politics.

But to Russians who looked to the new president with some hope for change, Medvedev's presidency seems to have stalled somewhere between word and deed. In fact, few of the criticisms were new, but so far there has been little tangible change. Corruption, for example, remains rampant despite Medvedev's complaints. Medvedev has often peppered his speeches with flashes of liberalism that were startling to audiences who had grown accustomed to Putin's more steely nationalism.

But with his presidency now 18 months old, Medvedev has given no serious public display of independence from Putin when it comes to policy.

In Thursday's speech, Medvedev lingered long on the need for economic reform. He lashed out against state-run companies that are the legacy of Putin's drive to bring lucrative natural resource extraction under government control.

Later in the speech, there was another indirect swipe.

"Instead of the archaic society, in which the leaders think and make decisions for everyone, we will be a country of intelligent, free and responsible people," Medvedev said.

It was a radical departure from the familiar rhetoric of Putin, who skillfully stoked nationalism with invocations of Russia's greatness and allusions to external threats.

Medvedev said the global financial crisis had been harder on Russia than on other countries. And instead of blaming the economic woes on an irresponsible United States, as Russian leaders have consistently done, Medvedev suggested that Russians consider their own role in creating instability.

"We should not seek the culprits only outside the country," he said. "We must admit we did not do enough to solve problems inherited from the past."

He harshly criticized the state takeover of big companies, a trend that blossomed under Putin. He called the substandard quality of Russian production "shameful" and the nation's economic dependence on oil "humiliating."

He also articulated one of the Russian economy's greatest plagues: the failure to invest in modernizing an aging infrastructure that was the legacy of Soviet times.

"This was not created by us," he said.

"While it still helps this country stay afloat, it is rapidly becoming outdated."

As Medvedev's speech reached the allotted 90 minutes and ran on, the Russian television camera sometimes rested on Putin, now Russia's prime minister, who either stared straight ahead with an enigmatic expression or gazed toward the ceiling.

Several times, he heaved quiet sighs of apparent impatience.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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