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Medvedev Made It Clear He Is Onside With Premier Putin in His State of the Nation Address, Even If He Said That Schoolteachers Are More Powerful Than Prime Ministers

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir PutinPresident Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday outlined a wide-ranging plan to protect children in response to the "serious" demographic threat to Russia, but otherwise tiptoed round the difficult issues in Russian foreign and domestic policy in an unusually modest annual address, say analysts. Medvedev set out his stall as a pragmatist in his third State of the Nation address, taking credit for "stabilizing" the economy with the number of unemployed down by two million since the peak of the crisis. But he still made it clear that he is onside with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin just 16 months before the 2012 elections, say analysts. "Caring for the future generation ­ this is the most reliable, intelligent and noble investment," was Medvedev's central message. "As a result of the demographic drop in the 1990s, we will experience a significant fall in the number of women of child-bearing age in the next 15 years," warned Medvedev. "This is a serious threat and a call to everyone in the nation."

Medvedev dedicated a sizeable portion of his 75-minute address to family welfare, pledging new incentives for families with three children, more investment in family healthcare and said two billion rubles of budget money has been earmarked to improve schooling. "School teachers have power that prime ministers can only dream of having," said Medvedev, apparently quoting Winston Churchill to prove his point.

Meanwhile tandem-watchers sat upright when Medvedev marked out Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist, as the man who will transform the capital into an "international financial center" ­ an unseen nod of deference to Putin who watched on blank-faced from the front row, said Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information. "This underlined the cooperation between the Putin and the Medvedev camps," said Mukhin.

Otherwise the State of the Nation address was scant with substance, say analysts, despite a small foreign affairs headline. While hailing Russia's loose agreement with NATO to plan a joint missile defense system in Europe, Medvedev warned that the old Cold War foes could easily find themselves in an arms race if their talks lead to nothing in the next ten years.

This was as decisive as it got in terms of foreign affairs. "I was struck because the speech did not focus on any of the political conflicts, either external or internal," said Masha Lipman, an expert for Carnegie Moscow Center. The Russian president made no mention of Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Korea or Central Asia. "He hinted at lots and lots of problems but none of the conflicts that took place last year. He identified problems but what he said about foreign policy was very telling ­ it was all about cooperation with the West," she said.

Medvedev concentrated on a microscopic change in the domestic political landscape, arguing that Russia should have a more "proportional" or "mixed" electoral system in the regions which would create more trust in municipal and city governments. "In this way the State Duma elections in December next year will take place in the conditions of a new political system established at all levels," he said somewhat vaguely.

Then, while calling on civil society to take part in the defense of the environment, Medvedev made no mention of the ongoing controversy around the Khimki Forest. Grassroots protests over alleged corruption in the felling of the forest on Moscow's outskirts led Medvedev himself to place a moratorium on the construction of a road intersecting Khimki, which Putin had himself put his unambiguous support behind. "There was not even a half-word about Khimki. He just talked broadly about the environment. The same goes for police reform. He didn't mention any of the outrageous episodes of this year," said Lipman. The president did vaguely allude to the conflict over Khimki by saying: "With regard to non-state ecological organizations, we should have a substantial dialogue and find mutually acceptable solutions with those that really care about preserving the environment before building industrial and infrastructure objects."

Medvedev reiterated his anti-corruption mantra and called on state officials to do their jobs and not simply seek to enrich themselves. "The authorities should not own 'factories, newspapers, steam boats'," he said, quoting the Russian children's poet, Samuil Marshak.

The president also said that 20 trillion rubles will be pumped into overhauling the army and that the pharmaceutical industry will become a growing export industry. But the speech will be remembered for its humanitarian edge after Medvedev recalled the "130,000 children, who remain without a family... who have neither parents nor guardians. They are denied the most important thing: family warmth."

A cozier tandem

Mukhin said Medvedev went for a modest but more emotional speech this year partly because of the failures to implement the pledges of last year's annual address. But the "humanitarian" dimension also came from the influence of his wife, Svetlana Medvedeva. "I think a very important role in formulating the speech was played by Svetlana Medvedeva," said Mukhin.

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