Appearing before the Russian State Duma to explain his government's anticrisis program and to answer deputies' questions, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remained upbeat and confident, saying the country can already see "the light at the end of the tunnel."
In an hour-long report to lawmakers -- his first appearance before the Duma since he was confirmed as prime minister last May -- Putin said the crisis must not divert the government from its previously stated long-term goals. He said that government measures to shore up the banking system had protected the savings of citizens and prompted banks to begin lending again.
Putin tried to maintain an optimistic tone, projecting confidence that the government, the Central Bank, and all levels of executive-branch authority in the country were monitoring events closely and were capable of responding effectively.
"What have been the main results of our immediate anticrisis measures? We have managed to avoid the worst possible development scenarios," Putin said. "As much as possible, the blows of the crisis have been softened. The economy has demonstrated its ability not simply to survive, but to develop in these new, less favorable circumstances."
Not everyone was convinced. Following Putin's speech, Communist Party faction leader Gennady Zyuganov called for the resignations of several cabinet members, particularly that of Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.
Building 'A More Effective Economy'
But Putin betrayed no lack of faith in his cabinet, and remained focused both on overcoming the crisis and strengthening the economy. While admitting that "2009 will be very hard for us," he said the recently issued budget and anticrisis program "reflect our position, our understanding of a responsible and deeply realistic socioeconomic policy.
"What is the heart of it? Securing the optimal combination of anticrisis measures and long-term projects," he added. "The goal is not only to defend ourselves, but to attack, to build a new, more effective economy."
Putin said that he is frequently asked whether Russia could have avoided the crisis, and responded that such thinking is "an illusion."
"The problems did not arise here and were not our fault -- that is obvious. No one will dispute that," he added. "But they have affected almost everyone, including Russia."
The prime minister spent the early part of his presentation lauding the economic results of the early part of 2008 and said the crisis would have been much worse if not for the policies pursued during his presidency, including paying down foreign debt and building up hard-currency reserves.
President Dmitry Medvedev, during a major address last November, proposed that the prime minister appear annually before the Duma and answer lawmakers' questions. Since then, the constitution has been amended to mandate such a report.
Putin conceded that accounting before lawmakers during the crisis was inconvenient, but said he welcomed the innovation as a step in the country's political development.
"I am sincerely glad that we are meeting today and not only because we will be able to discuss the country's problems and how to resolve questions of its development in an absolutely open and constructive atmosphere, but also because today we, together, are beginning a new tradition -- the report of the government before the parliament of Russia," Putin said. "This is yet another step forward in the development of our political system."
However, the Duma is dominated by the Unified Russia party that Putin heads, so the encounter was cordial and relaxed. The four factions represented in the Duma -- Unified Russia, A Just Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party -- were each allowed to submit three written questions in advance. Putin said that he addressed all of them during the course of his speech.
In addition, each faction was allowed to ask three oral questions following the prime minister's presentation. But even there, the questions were notably timid.
The special legislative session was attended by the entire cabinet and many regional executive-branch heads.