President Putin offers a harsh assessment of the state of Russia

In speech at the Duma, he shows commitment to democratic reforms

July 09, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin assembled both houses of Parliament and a national television audience yesterday to present his assessment of the state of the nation. In a word, it was forbidding.

After 10 years of independence, he said, Russians have built only "the carcass of a civic society" and have yet to shoulder such basic obligations as obeying laws. A falling birth rate and an aging population threaten to make Russia "a senile nation." The economy, which lately has perked up, is a house of cards supported by high oil prices.

"The growing gap between advanced nations and Russia," Putin warned, "is pushing us into the group of Third World countries."

Putin said not much can be remedied until Parliament ratifies his plans to concentrate power in the Kremlin and destroy the system of regulations, hidden favors and political empire-building that is strangling the economy.

Putin's 50-minute state-of-Russia speech - like the U.S. State of the Union, it is now an annual tradition for Kremlin leaders - was perhaps his most pungent analysis of Russia's problems to date.

It may have been most notable, however, for his emphatic and, at some points, seemingly emotional commitment to building a democracy.

The Kremlin's heavy-handed treatment of some critics and its sweeping efforts to reassert its rule in the provinces have led some to charge that Putin is edging the nation into authoritarian rule.

Putin explicitly dismissed "speculations on the theme of dictatorship and authoritarianism."

"Our position is extremely clear," he said. "It is only a strong, an effective - if somebody does not like the word `strong' - it is only an effective state and a democratic state that is capable of protecting civic, political and economic freedoms. It alone can create conditions for the comfortable life of people and the flourishing of our homeland."

He strongly endorsed the notion of creating permanent political parties "with mass support and solid prestige," like those in Western nations, as well as a system for nominating presidential candidates.

"Strong government has an interest in having strong opponents," he said. "It is only in conditions of political competition that serious dialogue on the development of our state is possible."

He also made mention of the media, saying that "without a really free mass media, Russian democracy simply will not survive."

"That is why we must guarantee journalists real rather than phony freedom, and create legal and economic conditions in the country for a civilized information business," he said.

Putin has been repeatedly criticized over the Kremlin's treatment of the media. The government recently claimed the right to license newspapers, and it has exerted strong economic and legal pressure on the owner of Russia's only independent television network.

But the president suggested yesterday that the real threat to the media comes from warring tycoons who control most outlets, saying press freedom "has become a juicy morsel for politicians and major financial groups and a handy tool in the struggle between clans."

Speaking in the vast chamber of the 450-member lower house of parliament, or Duma, Putin pounded home the argument that democracy, a thriving economy and a strong state depend on one another.

Most of what he said was certain to please foreign investors, who have begun to trickle back into Russia two years after an economic crash made business almost untenable.

The Kremlin has proposed a sheaf of reforms, led by an overhaul of the bewildering tax system, to spur economic development. But Putin said yesterday that those moves will fail unless both Moscow and the provinces embrace democratic principles that give businesses freedom from government interference and guarantee equal application of law.

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