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Russia: Putin Speech Puts Domestic Concerns Before Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin delivering his state-of-the-nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly on May 10 (official site) MOSCOW, May 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Many policy-watchers expected Russian President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address today to focus on foreign policy.

But apart from a few remarks on Iran, the United Nations, and U.S. political pressure, what Putin delivered in his crisp, hour-long Kremlin speech was largely domestic -- a detailed plan for reversing Russia's drastic demographic decline, and a pledge to boost the country's military defenses against both global and local threats.

He also defended the country's economic growth and status as a stable energy provider -- a key factor during Russia's 2006 chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized nations.

Mild Attacks On U.S.

Most of the reporters who gathered in the Kremlin today thought Putin might use the annual address to rebut stinging criticism from the United States last week.

Speaking in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on May 4, Vice President Dick Cheney accused the Kremlin of restricting democratic rights and using the country's vast energy resources as "tools of intimidation and blackmail."

But to observers' surprise, Putin largely declined to pick up the gauntlet. His seventh state-of-the-nation speech since his election in 2000 -- delivered before a joint session of the Federation Council and the State Duma parliament chambers -- offered only a few thinly veiled critiques of Washington.
"It must be said openly: the stronger our armed forces, the less temptation there will be to put such pressure on us."

He hinted that the United States was more concerned about defending national interests than human rights, a statement that drew a large round of applause from his audience.

"Where does all the pathos go about the need to fight for human rights and democracy when it comes to pursuing their interests? Anything is possible then," he said. "There are no limits. But, understanding all the direness of this problem, we should not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union, the mistakes of the Cold War era, either in politics or in our defense strategy."

A Veiled Warning On Iran

Putin also appeared to address mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran's controversial nuclear program. Saying Russia was "unambiguously" opposed to the global spread of nuclear weapons, he then indirectly warned the United States not to take military action against Iran.

"We stand unambiguously for strengthening the [nuclear] nonproliferation regime with no exceptions, on the basis of international law," he said. "It is known that methods of force rarely give the desired result and their consequences are sometimes more terrible than the original threat."

Putin went on to describe the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries as a priority zone for Russia's foreign policy.

"There is a difficult but active search under way for optimal models of cooperation within the CIS," he said. "And Russia is ready to talk openly and clearly about the final result that it seeks: it is the creation of an optimal economic system that ensures the efficient development of each of its members. I repeat, our relations with our closest neighbors have been and remain the most important area of Russia's foreign policy."

Focusing On Domestic Issues

But the bulk of Putin's speech focused mainly on domestic issues. Chief among them was what Putin called "the main issue," to which he devoted one-fourth of his speech -- Russia's demographic crisis.

Putin said Russian women face a hard economic choice when it comes to having children (RFE/RL file photo)

The Russian president decried the country's annual decline of nearly 700,000 people a year, and presented a detailed plan for improving child-care benefits in order to encourage women to have at least the two children needed to maintain a stable population.

"When planning to have a child, a woman is faced with the choice whether to have a child but lose her job, or not to have a child," Putin said. "This is a very difficult choice. The encouragement of childbirth should include a whole range of measures of administrative, financial, and social support for young families."

The proposal drew warm praise from top officials, who joined the crowd of reporters after the speech. Reporters were not allowed to attend the address and watched the speech on a giant television screen outside the Kremlin's conference hall.

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin called the proposal "ambitious but feasible." Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov also welcomed the plan and hailed the whole speech as "stunning, pleasant and very professional."

An Assertive Russia

Putin's call to address the country's demographic crisis is consistent with Russia's current emphasis on Russian nationhood and cultural traditions. But it also was a sign that Putin is looking with concern at the country's dwindling military ranks.

The Russian president spoke regretfully of the country's military stagnation and pledged to rebuild the Russian military to face this century's global, regional, and local threats. He acknowledged, albeit with a touch of irony, that Russia faced a challenge in matching the military standards of a country like the United States, which spends 25 times more on defense than Russia.

Putin said global security will depend on a new generation of weaponry and a modern, mainly professional -- rather than conscript -- army. He also said Russia needed a strong military not only to guard against potential attacks, but also to resist political pressure from abroad.

"We should be always ready to repulse potential foreign aggression and acts of international terrorism, we should be able to respond to anybody's attempts to put pressure on Russia in matters of foreign policy in order to strengthen their own positions at our expense," he said. "And it must be said openly: the stronger our armed forces, the less temptation there will be to put such pressure on us."

Economic Concerns

Among the issues which Putin said the West is using to pressure Russia is the country's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Putin said WTO negotiations should not be used to make demands on Russia that are not related to entry into the trade body.

"It is obvious that our economy is already more open than the economies of many members of this respected organization," Putin said. "And the negotiations on Russia's membership in the WTO should not become a subject of bargaining over issues that have nothing to do with the activities of this organization."

Putin said Russia had not succeeded in its original goal of doubling gross domestic product within a decade. But he stressed that the country's overall economic performance has been strong, not least because of the significant growth in energy markets.

Russia's reliability as an energy provider has come under increasing scrutiny this year, as the Gazprom natural-gas monopoly has ambitiously sought dominance in European, Asian, and CIS markets. Russia is hoping to use its chairmanship of the G8 this year to repair its somewhat poor reputation, particularly in Western Europe, as a country that can keep energy supplies and politics separate.

But Putin said today that Russia "must do everything" to "fully meet our obligations before traditional partners" like Europe.

Expert Commentary

Expert Commentary

Vladimir Pribylovsky (RFE/RL)

'LITTLE CONNECTION WITH REAL LIFE': On May 10, VLADIMIR PRIBYLOVSKY, director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, spoke to RFE/RL's Russian Service about President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address.

Vladimir Pribylovsky: Such speeches are typically dominated by rhetoric, and, essentially, President Putin's addresses usually seem to have little connection to real life. His state-of-the-nation addresses have never made any mention of his main activities during his six years in office. He ransacked NTV, but he didn't say anything about it in his speeches in 2000 and 2001. He destroyed Yukos, but didn't say anything about that in his speech. He changed how [regional] governors were elected at the same time he was saying in his address that such a thing would never happen. And so on.
Of the things he said today, I noticed only one concrete promise -- practically a decree -- and that was to increase benefits for children, for first and second children. Everything else was more like wishful thinking. He said some people's toes are going to get stepped on. Some people took that to mean he was talking about business; others thought he was talking about the U.S. vice president. But again, we've already come across these thoughts and assumptions -- some people had thought he would chew over national projects, and other people thought he was going to talk about foreign policy.

MORE: To read a transcript of the complete interview in Russian, click here.


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