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Russia: Putin Praises Economic Progress But Demands More

Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament in Moscow today, saying his administration would continue to push for democratization and economic development.

"Our goals remain unchanged: the democratic development of Russia, the establishment of a civilized market and a state based on the rule of law, and, most importantly, the improvement of our citizens' living standards."

Putin said his administration's reforms had already borne fruit. He noted some achievements of the past year, including the adoption of new Land and Labor codes, as well as a new Criminal Procedural Code, which is due to go into effect this summer. Noting the recent upswing in Russia's economy, Putin said that overall, the Russian people had become more optimistic about the country's long-range future. He cited growing numbers of university students as proof of this change in mood.

But Putin also said much remained to be done. He stressed that 40 million people in Russia -- out of a total population of 150 million -- remain trapped below the poverty level.

"There is no reason to be dizzy from success. The economic problems that Russia has accumulated over the past decades of stagnation and crisis have not gone away. Poverty has retreated slightly, but it continues to afflict almost 40 million citizens."

Putin rebuked his cabinet for accepting modest economic forecasts, saying the 3 to 4 percent annual growth rates government ministers expect in the next few years would not help Russia close the gap with the world's other industrialized countries. Putin reminded his audience of legislators that in an increasingly globalized world, Moscow faces tough international competition for markets. He said Russia must be able to defend its economic interests aggressively on the world stage if it wants to remain an important political player.

"Today Russia needs more ambitious goals and higher growth rates, and our economic policy and the everyday work of government bodies should be task-oriented so that Russia remains a solid member of the international community and a strong competitor. Our economy must grow at a much faster rate, otherwise we will always fall behind, and our interests in global politics and economics will be discriminated against."

Putin said one of the government's key goals should be to "create conditions so that Russians can earn money for their own benefit and invest in their own country." To that end, he called for the clearing of bureaucratic barriers, noting that unnecessary regulation fostered a climate in which corruption could thrive.

"Today's organization of state bureaucracy, unfortunately, favors corruption. And I would like to stress that corruption is not the result of a lack of law enforcement, but a direct consequence of restrictions on economic freedoms. Any administrative barriers can be overcome by bribes -- the higher the barrier, the greater the number of bribes and the more bureaucrats there are taking them." On the subject of crime, Putin addressed the issue of rising right-wing extremism. Gangs of skinhead thugs have repeatedly clashed with those not of Russian ethnicity in Moscow and other cities in recent months. In the latest incident this week, an Afghan interpreter who worked for Russia's Interior Ministry died in Moscow after he was savagely beaten by skinheads at an exit to a metro station.

"The rise of extremism is a serious threat to stability and security in our country. I am speaking about those who, under fascist and nationalist slogans and symbols, organize pogroms and beat and kill people, while the police and the prosecutors often lack effective means to prosecute the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes."

Putin said the government would soon send a bill to parliament to help law-enforcement agencies better prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks.

The Russian president also touched on the issue of Chechnya. "The main task at this stage is to return Chechnya to Russia's legal and political environment, to create effective judicial institutions and its own law-enforcement agencies, and, in the future, organize free elections and set up a fully functioning republican government to ensure economic security for the Chechen people," Putin said.

Despite Putin's optimistic-sounding words, the conflict in the war-torn republic shows little sign of abating. Russian news agencies reported today that 19 Russian servicemen have been killed in Chechnya in the past 24 hours. Thirteen of the servicemen were killed in mine explosions in the Chechen capital Grozny. The remaining six were killed yesterday when rebels ambushed a troop transporter in the Shatoi Mountains, about 40 kilometers south of Grozny.