Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressed the State Duma yesterday in an address marking his first 100 days in his post -- a period dominated by his conduct of the new war in Chechnya. But rather than dwelling on the North Caucasus, Putin largely focused on the state of the Russian economy. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that coming just three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections, the speech had a pre-electoral ring.
Moscow, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) - There was a clear message the Russian prime minister was attempting to deliver in his speech to the State Duma, much of which was shown on nationwide television. The message was: Vladimir Putin knows how to run a war -- and also an economy.
Putin's speech marked his first 100 days in office, and he reported to the Duma on the achievements of the Russian economy and the government's goals. According to Putin, economic trends have never been so heartening as now. Putin implied that the present government's record was the best since President Boris Yeltsin came to power.
"We all know there are some positive changes in the economic and financial sectors. They started soon after the 1998 August crisis. For the first time since the beginning of reforms, this trend has been holding out for 14 months."
To defend his case, Putin listed several positive indicators. He pointed out that inflation is at 31.5 percent, while economists had forecast 60 percent. He also said that the production levels of Russian companies have increased significantly, not only in export sectors but also in those sectors that rely on domestic demand. He said that by making imported goods too expensive, last year's ruble devaluation gave a decisive boost to consumption of domestically produced goods.
Putin admitted that the rise of world oil prices has also boosted the economy by securing extra state revenue from oil exports.
Western economists have also noted the positive effect of these factors on the Russian economy.
But Putin gave himself and the two previous governments credit for implementing a "sensible and consistent" economic policy.
Duma Deputy Oleg Morozov told RFE/RL that Putin's assessment of the Russian economy has a pre-electoral ring. And it coincides with Putin's announcement of his choice for the December parliamentary elections. Putin said he will vote for Unity, an electoral bloc headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. The bloc was created only in September and is said to be the Kremlin's desperate last attempt to achieve some leverage in the elections.
Image-maker Igor Bunin said two weeks ago that, in his words, "The Kremlin's idea is that some of Putin's popularity may rub off on Unity and get it into the Duma as the new party of power." Putin's statement comes as the first official support for a contender in the parliamentary elections.
While offering an optimistic assessment of the economy, Putin also provided a list of the problems that the government has not yet managed to solve.
"The government is not inclined to overplay the positive trends. We are careful, while being optimistic. Because we realize that so far we haven't managed [to find a way] of solidifying [the trends] and making them last for the long term. Let me tell you what these problems are. There is no deep movement in investment, nonpayment is still widespread, as well as the use of barter and other non-monetary means of payment."
Putin said capital flight and insufficient restructuring of the banking sector are also among Russia's woes.
While saying he would continue reforms, Putin agreed that the past months have shown that the state must retain a role as a regulator in the economy and cannot just, in his words, "dump problems on the labor collectives." He said that the government must adopt a long-term strategy instead of improvising solutions to problems as they appear.
"We need a long-term development strategy for the next 10 to 15 years. It should spell out how we choose to continue reforms. It should also give a clear perspective of the goals and limits wanted by the majority of people. There is still no such strategy in the country and that has a negative effect on the situation, on the work of the government. For the past 10 years it spent a significant part of its time closing holes and extinguishing fires, also social ones. [If we] go on in this manner, we will just be running in place"
These statements come as Putin faces still isolated but growing criticism that his focus on the situation in Chechnya is coming at the expense of due attention to other issues. Putin's focus in the speech on key economic issues may have been a response to these critics.