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Putin’s pledges in state-of-nation speech draw skepticism from critics

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin delivered his state of the
nation address Wednesday, and he made conditions in his country sound enviable — a view immediately rejected by his critics.

“We will implement everything we planned,” Putin said, describing a Russia committed to democracy where corruption would be fought, more jobs would be created, affordable housing would be built and pay would be increased.

“He has repeated all the unfulfilled promises he has made in the course of his 13 years in power,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition politician, wrote in his blog, pointing out new promises such as improvement of spirituality and collegiality. “It’s social populism.”

Putin appeared to anticipate the criticism, hinting that it was time to follow through on previous promises. “If it needs to be done,” he said, “we must do it.”

Putin’s audience — the parliament, cabinet members and other high-level officials, including the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, gathered in an ornate Kremlin hall — clapped regularly.

Standing at a white lectern, he spoke for nearly an hour and a half, sufficient time for Putin watchers to say that he must be recovering from his widely rumored and intensely denied back pain.

The president was applauded for saying Russia should be an influential country; for promising more sports programs for children and better housing so people can move out of shabby apartments; and for committing to make Russia’s economy oriented toward new technology instead of dependent on natural resources such as oil. The last is a favorite theme of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was president for four years before Putin returned to the office in May.

As he enumerated his promises, Putin even created a word new to the Russian ear. “We need a whole set of measures to de-offshoreize the economy,” he said, explaining that officials would be prohibited from having foreign bank accounts and that Russia would be made more attractive to investors.

Putin hit another recently familiar note: resentment of foreigners perceived as telling Russia what to do. He said anyone taking foreign money could not be a politician. “Russian democracy will not be forced on us from abroad,” he said.

Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International in Russia, tweeted as he spoke: “Much about the ‘what,’ little about the ‘how.’ ”

Putin began sounding the theme a year ago, shortly after he announced his intention to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister. First, he accused a Russian election monitoring group, supported by grants from the United States and Europe, of acting on behalf of foreign interests. Then he accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of calling political opponents out onto the streets of Moscow. The U.S. Agency for International Development was ordered out of the country as of Oct. 1, accused of meddling in domestic affairs. And Putin promoted the passage of a law forcing nonprofit groups that get grants from abroad to register as foreign agents. His speech Wednesday reinforced those actions.

Putin quoted Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who said serving your nation is a responsibility, and the admired 18th-century scientist and poet Mikhail Lomonosov, who said national opportunity lies in Russia’s development of Siberia and the East.

Some critical commentators brought to mind an English phrase: damning with faint praise. “Every sober-minded person will find something to his liking,” said Igor Yurgens, president of the Institute of Contemporary Development, a think tank close to Medvedev.

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