Putin repeats vow of democratic reform

Annual address to nation offers reassurance but is short on details

April 26, 2005|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Facing growing fears at home and abroad about Russia's lack of commitment to democracy, President Vladimir V. Putin told Russians yesterday that his government must put into action the democratic ideals it all too often extols without fully implementing.

"I consider that the main political and ideological task is the development of Russia as a free and democratic state," Putin told parliament during his annual address to the nation.

"We frequently utter these words, but the underlying meanings of the values of freedom and democracy, justice and legality are seldom treated in a practical way in our life."

Over the past year, Putin has encountered a steady stream of criticism from the Bush administration and some Western European leaders that Russia continues to veer further off the path toward democracy.

This week, a three-judge panel is expected to decide whether to convict Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky of tax evasion and fraud, a case widely regarded in the West as a Kremlin-orchestrated political vendetta against the former Yukos Oil chief.

Shift in power

Western leaders also have expressed concern over Putin's decision to push a law change that took away from voters the authority to select Russian governors and put that power in the hands of the Kremlin.

In the past, Putin has bristled at such criticisms, firing back that Russia is indeed a democratic state and will pursue further democratic reforms at its own pace.

He reinforced that sentiment yesterday, saying, "Russia can and will independently determine for itself the time frame and conditions" of democratic reform.

Nevertheless, Putin made it clear that he believes his country has lagged on some reforms.

In what appeared to be an attempt to calm the fears of businesses and investors in the wake of huge tax bills levied against oil ventures in Russia, Putin said the government had to find ways to recover back taxes "while not ruining the economy and not driving businesses into a corner."

"Tax agencies," Putin said, "have no right to terrorize business by going back to the same problems again and again."

He also suggested that the law abolishing the election of Russia's governors could be amended so that, rather than selecting whom he wanted, the Russian president would appoint a governor from the political party that had won a given province's most recent legislative election.

Pressure on media

Putin also has been harshly criticized in the West for driving out independent voices from Russia's television media and putting Russian television solely under the control of the state.

In his address, he said Russia must "create guarantees that Russian state television and radio will be as objective as possible, free from the influence of any particular group."

Several Russian political analysts called Putin's speech encouraging, though they cautioned that the president gave little detail about how his calls for reform would be carried out.

"The main problem is how quickly the goals set by the president in today's address are realized," said Konstantin Simonov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Current Political Studies.

Mourns for U.S.S.R.

Putin also fell back on populist themes, lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," a sentiment shared by many Russians.

He also tried to reassure Russians that the government "should provide assistance to those who cannot work and those with low incomes, disabled people, pensioners and orphans to make sure that they live worthy lives."

Earlier this year, Putin's approval ratings plummeted when his government tried to replace certain social benefits to the poor, retirees and veterans - including free transportation and subsidies for housing and prescription drugs - with cash stipends that were not always of comparable value.

The decision triggered huge protests across the country.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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