Putin calls for stronger army
State of nation address focuses on domestic issues
MOSCOW, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin used his state of the nation address to announce measures to boost Russia's falling birthrate and call for a stronger army -- though he also took a swipe at the U.S. after recent remarks by Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the seventh state of the nation address since his 2000 election, Putin concentrated largely on domestic issues, calling for measures to reverse a demographic decline that has shrunk Russia's population by millions since the Soviet collapse.
But amid increasingly vocal American criticism of his domestic and foreign policies, Putin also issued a veiled response to Vice President Dick Cheney's accusations that Moscow is rolling back on democracy and strong-arming its ex-Soviet neighbors.
"Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests?" said Putin, who also used a fairy-tale reference to criticize the aggressive U.S. course in global affairs.
"We are aware what is going on in the world," he said. "Comrade wolf knows whom to eat, it eats without listening and it's clearly not going to listen to anyone."
CNN's Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance said the speech -- the text of which had been kept secret until it was delivered -- was not the one that had been expected.
Kremlin watchers said the speech would focus on international affairs, said Moscow-based Chance. But the main themes of the speech were economic, although the Russian leader did touch on some international issues.
The main themes of Putin's speech were the importance of the Russian army and the need to increase the country's birthrate, calling the persistent population decline one of the most serious problems facing the country.
Putin also called for Russia to focus on investment and innovation to win its deserved place in the world economy. He also called for more work to tackle alcoholism.
Devoting much of the hour-long speech to defense, Putin stressed that Russia needs a strong military not only to guard against terrorism and attacks but also to resist political pressure from abroad. He noted that Russia's military budget was 25 times lower than that of the United States.
"Their house is their fortress -- good for them," he said. "But that means that we also must make our house strong and reliable."
"We must always be ready to counter any attempts to pressure Russia in order to strengthen positions at our expense," Putin said. "The stronger our military is, the less temptation there will be to exert such pressure on us."
Putin said the government would work to strengthen the nation's nuclear deterrent as well as conventional military forces without repeating the mistakes of the Cold War era, when a costly arms race against the United States drained Soviet resources.
"Our response must be based on intellectual advantage, it must be asymmetrical and less costly while increasing the reliability and efficiency of our nuclear triad," Putin said, adding that the nation will strengthen all its components -- long-range aviation, land-based strategic missile forces and nuclear submarines.
He said Russia would soon commission two nuclear submarines equipped with the new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles -- the nation's first since Soviet times -- while the land-based strategic missile forces will get their first unit of mobile Topol-M missiles.
U.S.-Russian relations hit their coldest moment last week when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking in Vilnius, accused Moscow of backsliding on democracy and using its vast energy resources as a tool for "intimidation and blackmail" against its neighbors.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who will next meet Putin in St. Petersburg in July at a G8 summit of leaders of the industrialized world, said in an interview with a German newspaper that Russia is giving out "mixed signals" on democracy.
On Iran, Putin also sidestepped open criticism, making only a veiled warning to Washington not to take military action against Iran over its nuclear ambitions. (Full story)
Putin said Russia stood "unambiguously" for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the world.
But, in an apparent reference to mounting tension between the United States and Iran though without mentioning either by name, he said: "Methods of force rarely give the desired result and often their consequences are even more terrible than the original threat."
Moscow finds itself at odds with the West in the U.N. Security Council over how to respond to Tehran's refusal to end uranium enrichment.
Plea for more babies
Putin, unchallenged at home and due to step down in 2008 after two terms in office, zeroed in instead on Russia's catastrophic demographic situation, saying the population of the country was falling by 700,000 people every year.
"The problem of low birth rates cannot be resolved without a change in the attitude of our society towards the issue of family and family values," he said.
"We must at least stimulate the birth of a second child," Putin said, adding that concerns about housing, health care and education prompt many families to stop at one.
To loud applause from officials, he said a special program would be set up in the 2007 state budget that would make 1,500 rubles ($55.39) monthly payouts to families for their first baby and double that sum for a second child.
He called on the government to work more effectively to raise Russians' standard of living, and made a now customary -- though ineffective up to now -- dig at state corruption, saying that a number of officials "have enriched themselves at the cost of the majority of citizens."
Growth of Gazprom
Putin acknowledged that his originally stated goal of doubling gross domestic product within a decade now looks unlikely, due to growth falling slightly short of expectations in the last couple of years.
However, he stressed that overall economic developments have been positive, and took credit in particular for the explosive growth in the market capitalization of gas monopoly OAO Gazprom over the last year.
"This didn't happen by itself ... but as the result of certain actions by the Russian government," Putin said.
He identified obsolete equipment and poor energy efficiency as two of the factors holding back the Russian economy's competitiveness. Much of the equipment produced in Russia is "10 years out of date" and he said "even taking into account the climatic conditions of our country, energy efficiency is much lower than in competing nations."
In a barb apparently aimed at the United States, he said countries should not use Russia's World Trade Organization membership negotiations as a vehicle to make unrelated demands.
"The negotiations for letting Russia into the WTO should not become a bargaining chip for questions that have nothing in common with the activities of this organization," Putin said.
Russia has signed agreements with the European Union, China and Japan, among others, but has yet to reach deals with the United States, Colombia and Australia. In March, Putin expressed frustration at the pace of negotiations, accusing the U.S. of coming up with ungrounded demands that were hindering talks.
One of the persistent obstacles to Russia's WTO membership has been its poor record on combating the production and sale of pirated goods. "It is our obligation" to protect copyrights, Putin said.
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