Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Putin speech outlines grim reality of Russia

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday outlined an unusually bleak vision of a country mired in poverty, strangled by bureaucracy and facing ominous threats from inside and out.

Going into election season here, he offered, as an answer, an unusually ambitious platform of economic expansion, governmental reforms and military modernization, including the development of new nuclear weapons.

Delivering his third annual address to lawmakers in the Kremlin, Putin portrayed Russia as standing at a crossroads, past the tumultuous transition to capitalism, but still unable to compete against the "highly developed" nations which "we see around us."

His agenda of solutions was definitely framed by the democratic changes of recent years in Russia. The lack of specific detail in his program, however, recalled the speeches of Soviet leaders who vowed to usher in a better tomorrow but failed to deliver.

"We are confronted with serious threats," he said. "Our economic foundation, although it has become noticeably stronger, is still shaky and very weak. The political system is not developed enough. The state apparatus is inefficient and most sectors of the economy are uncompetitive. The size of the population continues to diminish. Poverty is receding very slowly."

Friday's address was widely viewed as the opening of the political campaign leading up to parliamentary elections and Putin's own bid for re-election next March. However, it was as strikingly short on concrete legislative proposals as it was blunt in criticism of a government he has controlled for three and a half years.

"He was very frank, but it was very difficult for him to paint any other picture since these are the truths known to everyone," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies, a research center here. "The current model of Russian capitalism is just not working."

Piontkovsky said that however laudable and political popular Putin's long-range visions might be, he had offered few proposals to address the problems that face Russia now.

"Unfortunately, there is nothing in between," he said.

Putin called for doubling the gross domestic product -- projected at US$388 billion this year -- but only over a decade. He called for making the ruble a hard currency, convertible overseas for the first time in nearly a century; for breaking the monopolistic control of parts of the economy; and for eliminating the duplicative functions of myriad government agencies that stifle growth. But he did not specify how to achieve these goals.

Putin also reiterated his call for a modern, professional military armed with new weaponry, but he stopped short of embracing proposals to end the unpopular draft. He said instead that the length of conscripts' service would be reduced to one year, from two. The shorter service would not take effect until 2008, beyond the end of a second four-year term of Putin's presidency.

He appeared to be responding to Washington's new nuclear strategy, announced last year, when he said that Russia, too, was considering developing new variants of nuclear weapons.

"I can inform you that at present the work to create new types of Russian weapons, weapons of the new generation, including those regarded by specialists as strategic weapons, is in the practical implementation stage," Putin said.

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