Putin Promises On National TV To Raise Pensions, Other Spending

Putin Promises On National TV To Raise Pensions, Other Spending

Shuddi Mukhtarov, left, and Zelimkhan Sadulayev watch in Grozny, Chechnya, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in a live question-and-answer session.
Shuddi Mukhtarov, left, and Zelimkhan Sadulayev watch in Grozny, Chechnya, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in a live question-and-answer session. (By Musa Sadulayev -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 5, 2008; Page A21

MOSCOW, Dec. 4 -- Confronting growing public anxiety over a faltering economy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assured Russians on Thursday the country would make it through the global financial crisis with "minimal losses" and pledged to boost pension payments and other spending to help those suffering in the downturn.

Using a nationally televised call-in program to stake out populist positions on a wide range of issues, Putin again asserted that the United States had "infected all leading economies of the world." But he also said he saw "positive signals" that relations with the United States would improve with the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Putin suggested that Obama was reconsidering plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe that is opposed by the Kremlin, and noted NATO's recent decision to refrain from setting a timetable for Georgia and Ukraine to enter the alliance.

"We are hearing that it's necessary to take Russia's interests into account while developing ties with it," he said, citing the statements of senior Obama aides. "If these are not just words, if they get transformed into a practical policy, then of course our reaction will be appropriate and our American partners will feel this immediately."

Putin has been hosting annual question-and-answer events with the public since shortly after his election as president in 2000. But the three-hour-plus session Thursday, broadcast live from a studio near Red Square, was his first since being appointed prime minister by his handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev. After presiding over eight years of rapid growth, it was also the first in which he was forced to face questions about an ailing economy.

"We have a young family, and now we have been left without work, as our company is on the verge of closing because of the global crisis. How will we continue to live?" asked Dmitry Salnikov, a metals worker calling in from a village in the Urals who was allowed to pose the first question.

Putin, looking serious but confident on a stage before an audience of supporters, acknowledged difficulties in the economy but said the government would use its foreign-exchange reserves, the world's third-largest, to soften the impact of the crisis.

He promised to increase pension payments by 34 percent, as well as to provide greater support for the unemployed, free medicine for the elderly, apartments for military officers and subsidized air tickets for residents of distant regions.

"We should say directly that it will be a difficult period in the world economy and in ours as well, and we should be prepared for this morally, organizationally, financially and even politically," he said.

"I still hope that we won't have mass unemployment, but the number of people temporarily losing their jobs will definitely rise," he added.

Still, Putin argued, the country was better off than during the 1990s. "We faced problems with the territorial integrity of our country, with the total disintegration of production and in the social arena," he said. "Today, our country is in a completely different position. We have every chance to make it through this difficult period with minimal losses both for the economy and, most importantly, our citizens."

The call-in program, for which questions were screened, appeared intended to bolster Putin's status as Russia's most popular politician as the economic crisis moves into a more painful phase. After turmoil in the banking system and a stock market crash slashed the fortunes of Russia's wealthy elite, ordinary Russians are beginning to feel the impact of rising inflation, a weakening ruble and growing wage arrears and layoffs.


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