President Vladimir Putin outlined an ambitious though vague program of social reforms Wednesday that he said would lift more Russians out of poverty, but he offered no concrete plans to build democratic institutions, as he promised after winning reelection two months ago.
In setting out his agenda for the first year of his second term, Putin focused on accelerating Russia's economic boom and fulfilling his plan to double the size of the economy within a decade. As part of that goal, he promised to make quality housing, medical care and education more accessible in a country where for many citizens all three are out of reach.
Putin reaffirmed a commitment to democracy in his annual address to parliament, setting out his vision of Russia as "a free society of free people." Reporters had noted that Putin did not use the word "democracy" in his inauguration speech earlier this month, but this time he used variations of it eight times in his 47-minute address.
"Obviously, the young Russian democracy has achieved substantial success, and those who stubbornly fail to notice this do not want to notice; they are not sincere," he said in the nationally televised speech. "Still, our system is far from perfect, and we should admit that we are at the start of the road. Without a mature civil society, it is impossible to effectively resolve pressing problems of the people."
But Putin blasted certain nongovernmental organizations for "serving dubious groups and commercial interests," instead of "defending the real interests of the people." While he did not name them, Putin seemed to mean groups that have been his most persistent critics, financed by Western governments, American financier George Soros and jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a lawmaker and leading advocate of Western-style democracy, said that the criticism of Russian nongovernmental organizations "sounded like a veiled threat." Speaking to reporters, he said, "Does it mean that any alternative, any opposition, must be excluded?"
Despite an election-night pledge that his "main aim is to strengthen democratic institutions" in his remaining time in office, Putin made no proposals toward that end during Wednesday's speech.
In the two months since his election speech , Putin's forces have advanced several proposals that would restrict democratic freedoms. The State Duma, the lower house of parliament dominated by Putin's party, gave preliminary approval to a bill severely limiting public protests. After numerous citizens objected, Putin ordered legislators to scale back the proposal, but the revised bill would still outlaw demonstrations in some circumstances.
Putin allies have also drafted a bill that would eliminate journalists' right to protect the confidentiality of sources, and make it easier for the state to shut down violators of the new media law. Other politicians close to Putin are crafting a constitutional amendment making it harder for private groups to sponsor ballot referendums.
Putin addressed none of those issues Wednesday, instead devoting the bulk of his speech to economic and social plans. He promised to tame inflation, cut value-added taxes, make the ruble a convertible currency in two years and rebuild an antiquated transportation network, including an overwhelmed oil pipeline system.
Putin was at his most expansive in addressing social problems that afflict many Russians despite several years of impressive economic growth. By 2010, he said, at least one-third of Russians should be able to buy a modern apartment. He acknowledged the breakdown of the health care system and asserted that Russians should receive free basic medical attention.