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Russia: Putin Says Russia Should Become 'Great Power'

Speaking in his annual state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Russia should become a great power based on a strong economy and integration into the international community. Putin praised the country's progress under his administration, saying its goal should be to double its GDP in the next 10 years.

Moscow, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a characteristically stern state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that the country should become a great power based on a strong, globally integrated economy.

Speaking in the Kremlin in his annual address to both houses of parliament, Putin issued what looked very much like a campaign speech ahead of presidential elections next March. "Our principal task should be the return of Russia to the ranks of rich, developed, strong and respected countries. But this return will only be possible when Russia becomes strong economically, when it is no longer dependent on crumbs from international financial organizations," he said.

Appealing to national pride -- a tactic that helped bring him to power in 2000 and sustain his astounding public-opinion ratings since -- Putin spent a significant part of his hour-long talk praising the country's developments over the past three years he has been in charge.

But he also said Russia still has a long way to go to complete its reform process and faces some serious threats, including an unstable economy, poverty, a demographic crisis, and terrorism.

Putin said Russia has achieved political stability and economic growth and passed a number of important reforms including legal and labor codes that have boosted human rights, a land-privatization law and tax reform, and a law on political parties that has helped create strong political organizations.

"We have already successfully solved many problems including those that seemed insoluble just recently. We have finally -- legally and practically -- restored the country's unity, strengthened the authority of the state, brought the federal power closer to the regions," he said.

The speech contained many generalizations, a departure from previous such addresses, when Putin has concentrated on laying out specific objectives for the government in upcoming years.

The president repeated several times that Russia's main task must be integration into the international community based on economic competitiveness. He also said Russia must continue to "consolidate" its political and social systems.

Putin praised developments in Chechnya, saying lawlessness in the country was coming to an end. He lauded a government referendum conducted last month on the passage of a new constitution for the breakaway region, saying it showed Chechens had chosen to become an indivisible part of Russia.

"Today, I thank the Chechen people for their courage, for not allowing themselves to be frightened, for the courage that is inherent to simple people who are sensitive to the truth. The people in Chechnya felt with their hearts their responsibility and their human interest. And finally, the referendum has shown that the Chechens rightfully consider themselves an integral part of Russia's united, multiethnic people," he said.

He added that Chechnya must still work out an agreement with the federal government to delineate powers and conduct parliamentary and presidential elections provided for in the new constitution. He did not mention front-page news of two suicide bombings over the past week in which over 75 people died.

In the economy, Putin meanwhile said Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) has grown 20 percent in the past three years -- since the country's ruinous economic crisis in 1998.

But he added that growth was slowing and depended on conditions in the global economy -- referring to the high oil prices that have largely driven Russian growth. A GDP growth of 6.4 percent this year was not enough, he said, adding that the economy remains unstable and a quarter of the population still lives below subsistence level. Putin said a strong currency was the mark of a great power and that the ruble should become fully convertible by 2007.

Turning to the country's demographic crisis since the Soviet collapse, Putin criticized Russia's rising mortality rates and dropping birth rates. He said the country must attract immigration, especially from former Soviet countries, with which the government should concentrate on improving ties.

Putin went on to criticize politicians for populism and issuing promises they could not keep. "For many years both legislators and the executive power have promised more than the Russian economy could provide," he said. "Furthermore, under populist slogans, the unrealizable promises are growing, continuing to deceive our country's citizens. Some politicians, unfortunately, are still doing that today."

Looking ahead to long-promised administrative reform, Putin said the country's bureaucracy was too bloated and lacked qualified workers. "Although the number of bureaucrats is huge, the country is still hungry for skilled personnel, at all levels and in all structures of power, hungry for modern administrators, for efficient people," Putin said.

In his address last year, tackling inefficiency in the country's vast bureaucratic machine came as a top policy priority. But the government's long-promised administrative reform did not come to pass. Even the current plan has been widely criticized for calling for the government to cut a mere 108 of its 5,000 functions.

On foreign policy, Putin said the world's main task should be to provide a basis for international law and that the while the United Nations was imperfect, it remains the most important international political body.

Russia's foreign policy concerns have been dominated by the war in Iraq, which the Kremlin fiercely opposed. Putin reflected a wave of public anti-Americanism earlier this year, sternly condemning U.S. policy to go to war without UN backing.

The president said international terrorism remains a major threat and -- speaking of a series of apartment bombings in 1999 blamed on Chechen separatists -- that Russia was one of the first countries to have been affected by it.

On military reform, Putin appeared to draw a compromise between the positions of change-averse generals and liberal politicians calling for Russia's disintegrating conscript army to be transformed into a smaller professional force.

Putin said many parts of the military should be staffed on a volunteer basis by 2007. He added that the country's mandatory two-year draft should be cut to one year and that only volunteers should serve in conflict areas such as Chechnya. The president also said Russia was developing new strategic weapons, but did not elaborate.

The president concluded by saying looming parliamentary elections would be the most important political event this year, criticizing political parties for shady financing and their reception to lobbying by big business.

Putin's grave delivery was in keeping with his public image. His stunning approval ratings are attributed in part to his public criticism of officials and government actions. Political observers say the tactic allows him to portray himself as an able and active leader addressing the public's concerns -- while drawing public ire away from himself.

A number of political analysts said ahead of time that they expected Putin's speech to be the unofficial launch of his presidential campaign.

Political observers have meanwhile complained that Putin's much-vaunted reform process -- especially of the economy -- has slowed down over the past year for the sake of stability in an election year.

Economists complain that the government continues to put off crucial structural reforms at a time in which the country's Soviet-era infrastructure continues to fall apart and the gap between the rich and poor grows.

Political observers speculated that the Kremlin wanted to play down the address this year, staging it on a Friday, when hordes of city dwellers are preoccupied with weekend preparations to head to their summer dachas.