President Vladimir Putin promised Russians affordable housing, education and health care and shrugged off allegations of authoritarianism Wednesday in the first state of the nation address of his new term.
Putin, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in March, also said Russia could double its gross domestic product faster than earlier planned.
He said some foreign nations were trying to tarnish Russia’s reputation by accusing the Kremlin of an authoritarian streak. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has warned authoritarianism is “creeping back” into Russian society, and other U.S. officials have expressed concerns about press freedom.
“Sometimes they deliberately interpret the strengthening of our state as authoritarianism,” Putin said in his speech, without naming any specific country.
Harsh words for NGOs
He said Russia would adhere to democratic values, but issued a chilling criticism of non-governmental organizations, saying many of them were more interested in getting funding from abroad or corporate sponsors than in defending the interests of the people.
“They cannot bite the hand that feeds them,” Putin said in an apparent reference to human rights groups funded by organizations like jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Foundation.
The nearly hourlong speech was Putin’s fifth state of the union address and the first since his re-election to a second, four-year term.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leading liberal lawmaker, said that Putin’s criticism of Russian non-governmental organizations sent a bad signal.
“That sounded like a veiled threat,” Ryzhkov told reporters. “Does it mean that any alternative, any opposition must be excluded?”
Putin has been riding a wave of strong economic growth that began after Russia’s 1998 financial disaster and largely has been driven by high world prices for oil.
But Russia faces serious challenges in spreading the wealth beyond a thin layer of the population.
People below the poverty line
In his speech, Putin said that about 30 million of Russia’s 144 million people live below the poverty line, about $75 a month, adding that stable growth was necessary to cope with the problem.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov criticized Putin for failing to end Russia’s excessive reliance on oil and gas exports by offering incentives for the development of manufacturing industries.
Putin said the economic growth rate for the first quarter of the year was 8 percent, and at that rate Russia could meet his goal of doubling its GDP by 2010, instead of the previous target date of 2012.
He also said the national currency, the ruble, should be made fully convertible within two years, and that annual inflation should be brought down to 3 percent within the same timeframe. Inflation currently runs around 12 percent a year.
Private investment should have a role in the development of the country’s oil pipeline infrastructure, Putin said, softening his earlier stance favoring total state control in the field.
Oil production tops 9M barrels a day
Russia’s booming oil production in recent years has outpaced the expansion of oil export infrastructure, resulting in bottlenecks throughout the country. In April, Russia pushed through the 9 million-barrel-a-day mark to hit an all-time post-Soviet high.
Putin urged the Cabinet to quickly set terms for private investments into the development of oil and natural gas pipelines. “This issue has come to a head long ago,” Putin said.
Putin said that by 2010, one-third of Russians should be in a position to purchase adequate housing, as opposed to the current 10 percent. He called for mortgages to be made long-term and affordable.
He said the government should guarantee free basic health care services and bring order to the chaotic commercialization of the health sector. Touching on education, Putin said the government needs to make sure that students are admitted to universities according to their ability rather than their parents’ incomes.
Closer ties with EU
Turning to global affairs, Putin said Russia would focus on developing closer ties with other ex-Soviet republics and the European Union and should continue dialogue with the United States and other key partners, including China, India and Japan.
At the same time, he stressed that Russia needs to protect itself from any potential military-political pressure by modernizing its military.
“That includes equipping our strategic nuclear forces with state-of-the art strategic weapons,” he said, drawing applause from the audience of lawmakers, government officials and other dignitaries.