Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday urged his opponents to put aside their differences with him for the sake of Russia’s economic and political future after months of protests and elections that divided the country.
However, some deputies walked out of the State Duma lower house to protest his remarks about a disputed mayoral vote following his last annual speech to parliament as prime minister, underlining the growing challenge he faces from the opposition after the biggest protests of his 12-year rule.
Putin, who will be sworn in as president on May 7, said in his unemotional one-and-a-half-hour speech that Russia was stronger after his four years in government and must now focus on boosting its population, improving economic growth, creating jobs, modernizing the economy and strengthening its global position.
To achieve this, he said, all political groups must unite following elections and four months of protests fueled by anger over alleged electoral fraud and his domination of the world’s largest country.
“The country has gone through a tense period of parliamentary and presidential elections. And today the echoes of the heightened emotions and political battles can still be heard,” Putin told the Duma to occasional bursts of applause.
“But the logic of a mature democracy is that elections end and afterwards ... joint work always begins,” he said, reading his speech from a podium to rows of deputies.
“We have one Russia, and its modern, advanced development must be the goal that unites all the country’s political forces that want to work to build it,” he said.
The speech was laced with populist references to Russia’s sovereignty, its economic progress and its ability to act alone on the world stage.
Although his authority has been dented by the protests, some of which brought tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets Moscow and other big cities before fading, Putin offered no new concessions to opponents who say he has stifled dissent.
The former KGB spy has already offered limited political reforms such as relaxing rules on the registration of political parties and, during questions after his speech, did not rule out bringing opposition representatives into government.
However, his opponents, who fear he could seek another term when his presidency ends in 2018 and rule until 2024, have dismissed his concessions as token changes that preserve his domination of the political system.
Several deputies walked out of the Duma when Putin suggested a Just Russia party member who is on hunger strike over alleged fraud in a mayoral vote in Astrakhan should take his dispute to court instead.
Losing candidate Oleg Shein has been on a hunger strike along with several supporters for nearly a month to protest the official result of the election in the southern city, which he lost to a rival from a pro-Kremlin party.
“As far as I know, your colleague ... started the hunger strike but did not appeal to court. This is a bit strange. Why go on hunger strike?” Putin said when a Just Russia deputy asked his opinion of the dispute.
Kremlin critics say courts are subject to pressure from the government and have had little success contesting results of a December parliamentary election in which allegations of fraud on behalf of Putin’s party sparked the protests against his rule.