Putin calls for strong, rich Russia

President lays out goal of more democracy, stops short of radical reforms

May 27, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, flush with power at the start of his second term in office, called yesterday for a stronger, richer and more democratic Russia, but stopped short of proposing the kind of radical reforms that would almost certainly be needed to achieve those goals.

Speaking to a crowd of 800 legislators and public officials at the Kremlin, Putin used blunt, businesslike rhetoric to set out his administration's broad, ambitious agenda for the next four years. The speech was Putin's fifth state of the union address and the first since his re-election to a second four-year term.

Putin said he wants to accelerate the construction of housing, slash inflation by 75 percent and double per capita income in the next decade. He called for modernization of Russia's antiquated military, including its nuclear weapons. And he demanded, as before, cuts in the government bureaucracy to encourage business growth.

Dressed in a somber black suit, he gave the speech with characteristic efficiency, reading from a briefing book for the entire 47 minutes and glancing up only to emphasize a point. His audience, as is customary, rarely interrupted with applause.

He repeated last year's call to double Russia's gross domestic product over the next decade. And his demand for bureaucratic reform is a familiar refrain.

He mentioned Russia's continuing war in Chechnya only in passing - and only to allege that the assassination of the Kremlin-backed president there was an instance of "international terrorism."

It is not clear what evidence, if any, he has for this. Shamil Basayev, a guerrilla separatist who has fought Russia in Chechnya for a decade, has claimed responsibility for the May 9 explosion that killed President Akhmad Kadyrov.

Neither did Putin mention the war in Iraq, where two Russian civilian contractors were killed yesterday. Russia and France are pushing the United States to name the new Iraqi government before the United Nations Security Council votes to endorse a handover of power. Each has one of the five permanent, veto-holding seats on the council.

But Putin spent a lot of time questioning the motives of human rights groups, which have reported that Russian troops have kidnapped and killed Chechen civilians. The groups also have criticized the Kremlin for the arrest last year of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos Oil chairman and Russia's richest man, on fraud and tax evasion charges.

Khodorkovsky has provided financial support to some of Russia's most prominent rights organizations. Many rights advocates say Khodorkovsky was jailed for opposing the Kremlin on political and economic issues, not because of any wrongdoing.

Among the critics of Putin's human rights policies is the U.S. State Department. The department's annual human rights report on Russia, issued in February, called the judiciary "seriously impaired ... by corruption," cited "credible reports" of kidnappings and murders committed by federal troops in Chechnya, and said Russia's parliamentary elections in December were "marred by widespread misuse of administrative resources."

Putin gruffly boasted yesterday of Russia's commitment to human rights. "Nobody and nothing will stop Russia's advance to stronger democracy and liberties," he said.

And he lashed back at his accusers. "For some of these organizations, the priority has become a different goal, in particular the receiving of funds from influential foreign and domestic foundations, and for others, serving dubious groups and commercial interests," he said.

It is not clear what kinds of policy changes, if any, Putin will adopt to improve human rights. In his first state of the nation speech in 2000, Putin declared that government should follow a "concerted policy" of avoiding interference with business.

He followed up with a major assault on the power and influence of the billionaire businessmen who control most of Russia's vast oil, mineral and other natural resources.

"There is a call to develop democracy, but the reality speaks for the opposite," Vladimir Ruzhkov, one of the few Putin critics left in parliament, told the NTV television network. "One should consider only concrete acts."

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