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RUSSIA

Speech Suggests Best Is Yet to Come

President Vladimir Putin extolled the successes of his eight years in office in a speech Friday that politicians and analysts said indicated his desire to remain the country's premier political figure for years to come.

Though most of the speech was dedicated to the country's economic achievements and prospects through 2020, Putin adopted a tough line on domestic and foreign policies that highlighted the growing global clout that Russia has enjoyed during his presidency.

In a reference to the era of President Boris Yeltsin, Putin opened his speech in the Kremlin's St. George Hall by saying he had successfully ended the scourge of lobbyism.

"We managed to make the country free of the sinful practice of making state decisions under the pressure of industrial and financial monopolies, media tycoons, foreign political circles and brazen populists who cynically ignored not only national interests but the basic needs of millions of people," Putin said.

Putin also touched on one of his pet topics: preventing foreign interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

"Irresponsible demagogy, attempts to divide society and to use foreign assistance and interference in the course of political struggle in Russia are not only immoral, but also illegal," he said.

On foreign policy, Putin -- just as he did a year ago in his now-famous speech at the Munich security conference -- accused the West of encroaching on Russia's borders and starting a new arms race. He promised new weapon systems in response.

"We are being forced to take retaliatory steps," he said. "Russia has and always will have a response to these new challenges. Over the next few years, Russia will start production of new types of arms that ... are in no way inferior to what other nations have and, in some cases, are even superior."

Putin accused the United States of ignoring Russia's concerns over U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get?" Putin said. "New American bases in Romania and Bulgaria. A new third missile defense region in Poland."
Though he did not single out any country, Putin accused the West of trying to get at the vast natural wealth "God has graced" Russia with under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy.

Foreign governments have accused Russia of using its energy resources as a political weapon.

"Many conflicts, foreign policy actions and diplomatic protests reek of oil and gas," Putin said.
In this context, one can understand the outside world's growing interest in Russia," he said.
Putin, who leaves office in May, did not mention by name his preferred successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev is expected to with the March 2 presidential election in a landslide.

Politicians and analysts said the speech was designed to cement Putin's status as the man who will lead the country into the next decade.

"It seems he wants to be at the helm of the country," said Alexei Pushkov, a television commentator and staunch defender of Kremlin policies.

Dmitry Badovsky, an analyst with the Institute for Social Systems at Moscow State University, agreed, saying Putin had conveyed to the political elite in attendance that he would call the shots until 2020.

Putin, who has agreed to become the prime minister in Medvedev's future Cabinet, is not going to accept simply being a manager and administrator -- the role customarily associated with Russian prime ministers, said Alexei Makarkin of the Center of Political Technologies.
"No, this speech was in no way the political will of an outgoing president," Makarkin said. "On the contrary, he made it clear that he wants to remain Russia's chief strategist."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Liberal Democratic Party leader and a presidential candidate, said Putin's decision to lay out his vision for the country through 2020 suggested that he would return as president within a year. "We'll expect the Constitution to be amended," he said.

(The Moscow Times 11.ii.08)

 
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