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The Moscow Times, May 27, 2004

Social Event of the Year for the Political Elite

By Greg Walters and Oksana Yablokova

Roman Abramovich
Igor Tabakov / MT
Roman Abramovich listening to Putin's speech alongside other governors Wednesday.
The state of the nation address Wednesday turned out to be the social event of the year for the political elite: the place to see and be seen, to rub elbows with the powerful and then to try to outdo one another in agreeing with the president.

The lobby of the Kremlin's Marble Hall filled up well before President Vladimir Putin's speech at noon. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II sat in a prime spot next to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Chukotka's billionaire governor, Roman Abramovich, took a seat in a section reserved for the country's 89 regional leaders. Some lawmakers were dripping wet after parking their cars outside the Kremlin walls and running through a spring rainshower.

After the address, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Putin's targets of doubling the economy by 2010, taming inflation and fighting poverty are within reach.

"Lowering inflation quickly, in one year to 3 percent, is possible," Kudrin said.

Doubling GDP earlier than first suggested is also realistic, he said. "This is a real possibility for us, and I am sure we will attain it," he told Interfax.

Governors lauded Putin's goals, while many State Duma deputies said they were achievable.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin's envoy to the European Union, called the address "very liberal" and urged Western leaders to pay heed.

Dmitry Rogozin, leader of the populist-nationalist Rodina faction in the Duma, said the speech represents a Kremlin shift toward Rodina's social values. Putin, he said, "senses a possible change in the political environment by the next elections," Interfax reported.

Of those in attendance, the most critical comments came from Communist Party leader Gennady Zuganov. Putin addressed "the right issues of improving health and education systems and developing housing construction, but he did not say how to achieve those [goals]," he told reporters.

Zyuganov also disagreed with Putin's assessment that the lives of most Russians have improved over the last four years. "Nearly 70 percent of Russians live near or below the poverty line," he said.

Yabloko co-leader Sergei Mitrokhin, whose liberal party failed to get into the Duma in December's elections and, as such, was not invited to the address this year, said Putin's remarks were little different from previous years.

"It's a repetition of an old story," Mitrokhin said by telephone. "The president says the right things about poverty, health, education and housing, and the government ends up doing the opposite. I would describe it as a boring repetition of previous presidential addresses."

The address won praise from Putin's predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yeltsin closely watched the speech on television and called it "the strongest in recent years," his aide Vladimir Shevchenko told Interfax.

Gorbachev said, "My evaluation of the president's speech is extremely positive," Interfax reported.

While praise ran high in the Marble Hall, not everyone in the audience was eager to comment. Publicity-shy Abramovich was one of the first to leave the hall, and he tried to rush past the cameras. But a reporter managed to grab him by the arm and ask whether he had liked the address. Abramovich merely nodded and frantically continued to make his way through the crowd.

The contents of the speech were kept under tight wraps -- apparently leaving some senior officials out of the loop. As Putin was calling for inflation to be brought down to an annual 3 percent, Central Bank chief Sergei Ignatiyev announced in Helsinki that the chances of bringing down inflation from 12 percent last year to 8 to 9 percent are "very high."

But "we are not planning any correction in our targets now," Ignatiyev was quoted by Reuters as saying.


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The Moscow Times, May 27, 2004

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