Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the Kremlin on Dec. 12 to deliver… (Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP/Getty…)
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned high-level officials Wednesday by proposing restrictions on their ability to possess Western bank accounts and own real estate abroad.
Putin, in his first state-of-the-union speech since returning to the presidency, focused largely on domestic issues, saying that fighting corruption is one of the key priorities of his third presidential term and that Russia should look for guidance in its own history.
Putin said at a gathering of government ministers, lawmakers, regional governors and spiritual leaders in the Grand Kremlin Palace that he wanted their support in limiting the rights of bureaucrats and politicians to hold foreign bank accounts and stocks.
"How can a bureaucrat or a politician be trusted if he says loud words for the sake of Russia's good while trying to take his funds, his money abroad?" Putin said.
When, after a short pause, the audience began to applaud, Putin interrupted, telling them they might not like what he had to say.
Putin said the limitations should apply to the highest officials, including presidential staff and parliament, government officials and managers of state-owned companies, and their relatives. He also said that the prosecutor's office has the right to seek confiscation of illegally acquired property.
Putin, who returned to office in May, vowed to support Russian business development, continue to build a powerful army, enhance spiritual and patriotic values in the young and promote democracy. He rejected "direct or indirect interference" in Russian politics.
"For Russia there is not and there may not be another political option but democracy," Putin said. "However, Russian democracy is … not at all the realization of standards imposed on us from outside."
Several analysts and politicians said Putin did not unveil any major policy changes and is unlikely to push very hard to limit the financial dealings among the elite.
"They shouldn't worry that their heads might roll in the near future," Ilya Ponomaryov, a Just Russia party faction lawmaker said after the president's speech.
"The anticorruption campaign is not for real and is intended by Putin to be used as an additional lever of pressure over Russia's political elite in the volatile and turbulent times that lie ahead," Ponomaryov said in an interview. "One of Putin's main rules is everything for friends and the law for enemies and he knows how to keep these people loyal."
The Kremlin will use a reasonable approach to monitoring financial matters, said Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst and director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, a Moscow-based think tank.
"Putin is not thirsty for blood, he simply wants more control over revenues and expenditures," Orlov said in an interview. "I am sure this is not a short-term thing and in a few years from now we will see a significant reverse of the capital flights and quite tangible lifting of corruption pressure over the economy."
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center, said in an interview that she doubted Putin's zeal in combating corruption would run deep.
"Putin can't afford to as much as attempt to eradicate corruption in Russia," she said, "because in the process he will be eradicating his very support base made up of corrupt and loyal bureaucrats of all levels."