The Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to reassure investors

Vladimir Putin, Russian's president, delivers the keynote speech on day one of the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum 2012 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday. (Andrey Rudakov/BLOOMBERG)

Vladimir Putin gave the first major international speech of his new presidency Thursday, telling an audience of influential businessmen, government officials and economists everything they wanted to hear.

But instead of applauding Putin’s assurances that he was building democracy, fighting corruption and creating trustworthy courts, they listened in silence. They had heard it before. Even in the same forum last year. This year, the mood was wait and see. Polite applause came at the end of the speech.

“Vintage Putin,” said Angela E. Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, who was in the audience. “The speech exudes self-confidence. . . . Let’s see how much of this they actually implement.”

“Vintage Putin,” echoed Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia.

“Shameless,” said a Russian who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The level of shamelessness is so high it’s unbelievable.”

He was referring in part to Putin making claims about developing democracy when the government has been harassing opposition leaders, searching their apartments, levying fines on them and handing out short, periodic jail sentences.

Since Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, struck many of the same notes at last year’s conference, little has changed in Russia — except for the passage of harsh laws aimed at curbing protest and new rules that are supposed to make it easier to form political parties.

“We are not building government capitalism,” Medvedev said last year.

“State capitalism is not our goal,” Putin said Thursday.

Putin spoke for 50 minutes, reading fluidly from notes — no Medvedev-style iPad for him. His tone was even and reassuring as he described plans to adhere to a balanced budget and fiscal discipline, jabbing mildly at the spendthrift West for setting off financial crises.

He called corruption the biggest threat to Russian development and said the country had to become less dependent on oil and gas. That was also a theme of the Medvedev presidency, when Putin was prime minister and in charge of running the government.

“What are our goals?” Putin asked. “They include . . . stable national development, the state effectively serving the interests of the public, and law enforcement and judicial systems that enjoy the unconditional trust of citizens.”

The forum in St. Petersburg has become a sort of Davos — the international economic discussion held in Switzerland every year — and Klaus Schwab, the Davos chairman, was here. The seating touched off memories of Soviet days, when Kremlin watchers deduced who was in and who was out by people’s proximity to the leaders lined up atop Lenin’s tomb to watch the annual Victory Day parade. Alexei Kudrin, the former Putin finance minister who of late has been flirting with the opposition, was in the front row, apparently more Putin friend than foe.

While Putin’s audience weighed his words and sifted visual clues, however, the St. Petersburg city council was taking action, considering a bill to ban demonstrators from gathering at any of the city’s main plazas. The council is controlled by United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev.



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