Putin sets high growth target,wages war on poverty
By Ron Popeski
MOSCOW, May 16 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin, firing the first shots in his bid for re-election next year, urged Russians on Friday to work together to eliminate mass poverty and double the size of the economy within a decade.
Putin, who has long outdistanced rivals in opinion polls, also vowed in a state of the nation address to press on with efforts to bring peace to separatist Chechnya -- just days after two rebel suicide attacks killed more than 70 in the region.
Putin's hour-long speech contained few policy initiatives ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential contest next March in which he will seek a second four-year term. But he made plain that Russians had every right to expect improvements in their living standards.
"In 10 years, we have to double the country's GDP," Putin said in the address, interrupted on a handful of occasions by polite applause in the Kremlin's Marble Hall. "It will require a consolidation of all political forces in the country (to achieve)."
Putin reminded members of both houses of parliament that one quarter of Russia's 145 million residents lived below the poverty line despite impressive growth figures in the years since the dramatic 1998 collapse of the economy.
"Despite all that, I must state that the achieved economic results are modest, very modest," he said, waving his finger.
"First of all, almost a quarter of Russian citizens have income that is below the poverty line -- yes, a quarter. Secondly, economic growth remains highly unstable."
Economic growth of 10 percent in 2000, he said, had dwindled to just 4.3 percent last year.
Russia, the world's second largest oil exporter, had been aiming for 3.5-4.4 percent growth in 2003, but a strong start to the year prompted officials to raise forecasts to 4.5 percent.
SPEECH AIMED AT VOTERS
The president's calls for ministers to do more were clearly aimed at masses of voters outside Moscow and other major cities who have seen few benefits of post-Soviet economic change.
The Communist Party, which accuses Putin and his government of failing to improve the lives of most Russians, tops opinion polls for elections to the State Duma lower house. Putin's ally -- the centrist United Russia party -- trails in second place.
On Chechnya, Putin pledged no let-up in plans to stage elections for a regional president and assembly following a March referendum in which results showed overwhelming support for the region to remain part of Russia.
The president made no reference to suicide bomb attacks this week, but said hardliners were sure to continue "on the path of threats and murder to intimidate the people of the republic."
"But we must take what we have started through to the end," he said. "The people of Chechnya will lead normal lives."
Putin devoted little time to foreign policy, but said Russia upheld the role of the United Nations, one of Moscow's few levers of influence with its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council.
He made no specific reference to Iraq, where Russia opposed the U.S.-led invasion and still has reservations about calls in Washington to lift sanctions without proof that there are no banned weapons in the country.
But he said Moscow would remain a participant in the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition formed after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.