#17 - JRL 7227
Russia PM defends record before no-confidence vote
By Richard Balmforth
MOSCOW, June 18 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin's prime minister, facing a parliamentary move to drive him from office, defended his government's record on Wednesday and said the economy could grow faster this year than first planned.
Mikhail Kasyanov, shunning a no-confidence vote due to take place in the State Duma lower house in Moscow, told a conference in St Petersburg that he believed the country was in a "good starting position" for broad and sustainable economic growth.
In Moscow, the communist and liberal opposition prepared a push for his resignation in a vote which, while almost certain to fail, would provide them -- and Putin -- with a chance to test the water six months ahead of parliamentary elections.
The motion's sponsors accuse Kasyanov's government of pursuing policies that have depressed living standards, eroded social security and favoured Russia's huge natural monopolies.
Far ahead in opinion surveys and likely to seek re-election next March in a separate poll, Putin runs few risks from a debate led by some of Russia's most fiery speakers.
But while Kasyanov's fortunes have little bearing on the president, Putin will want to limit damage to his centrist allies in the Duma, who dismiss the debate as an election ploy.
The motion was signed by 103 members, 10 more than required to get the issue on agenda, but far short of the 226 votes needed to pass. Centrists, the largest group in the 450-seat house, have been critical of Kasyanov, but have said they will not support the motion.
"This is a pure show staged by two theatrical troupes, but it will not attract many viewers," Lyubov Sliska, a leading light in the pro-Putin United Russia group, said dismissively.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, two-time loser in past presidential races, was to put the case against the government together with Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party.
In St Petersburg, Kasyanov said solid investment figures and rising personal incomes could help economic growth hit five percent, faster than initially planned.
"It's a good starting position for a further broad-based and sustainable economic growth with new sectors participating," he said. With the Duma debate looming, officials this week announced a five-month growth figure of 7.1 per cent.
Economy Minister German Gref, accompanying Kasyanov, told journalists: "Bringing a vote of no-confidence when you have growth rates of 7.1 per cent is an incomprehensible step."
But a poll last month showed nearly two-thirds of voters unhappy with government policy. Kasyanov is blamed for increased gas and electricity tariffs and rising costs in maintaining the tumbledown apartment blocks which house most town-dwellers.
The prime minister is largely responsible for the economy in Russia's political system and often serves as a lightning rod, deflecting discontent from the Kremlin. Putin periodically accuses Kasyanov of being too timid in pursuing targets.
If the motion passes, Putin can form a new government or dissolve the Duma and call a snap parliamentary election. He could also keep the existing administration in place, provided no second vote intervenes within three months.
But with the vote likely to fail, commentators said neither of these scenarios would be necessary.
(Additional reporting by Konstantin Trifonov and Darya Korsunskaya in St Petersburg)