Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sought to appease middle-class protests against his rule, pledging to diversify the economy and increase civil liberties if elected president in March.
“Russia’s growth over the next decades means expanding freedoms for each of us,” Putin said in an article published today in Izvestia newspaper and posted on his website. “The engine of growth must be citizens’ initiative. We will lose out if we count only on the decisions of officials and a narrow circle of big investors and state companies.”
Putin, 59, angered middle-class Russians when he announced in September that he would seek to return to the Kremlin, edging aside President Dmitry Medvedev. Allegations of fraud in Dec. 4 parliamentary elections sparked the biggest demonstrations since Putin came into power 12 years ago, with tens of thousands of people rallying in Moscow and other cities.
The Russian leader pledged to create 25 million highly paid jobs in the high-technology sphere, describing his key goal as the development of a “new economy for educated and responsible people.” Russia remains dependent on sales of oil and gas, which account for about 40 percent of budget revenues, and is the most corrupt major world economy, according to Transparency International.
Putin has refused demands by opposition leaders for new parliamentary elections, insisting the Dec. 4 vote was fair. His ruling party, which saw its majority in parliament cut to just over half from two-thirds, won only 30 percent of votes, according to the opposition Communists.
The Russian leader previously ridiculed the protesters, comparing the white ribbons they wore to condoms. Organizers plan to hold a rally in central Moscow on Feb. 4, exactly a month before the presidential election.
Putin praised the growth of the middle class, which he said now represents 20 percent to 30 percent of the population, up from between 5 percent and 10 percent in 1998. Russians between 25 and 35 have the highest level of education in the world along with Japan, South Korea and Canada, with 57 percent having a university degree, the premier said.
“Russia’s main challenge is to learn how to harness the educational drive of the young generation, mobilize the increased demands of the middle class and its readiness to carry responsibility for its wellbeing in order to guarantee economic growth and the stable development of the country,” he said.
During Putin’s first two terms as president, he worked to centralize power and increase state ownership of the country’s biggest companies. Buffeted by a booming global economy, Russia’s economic growth averaged 7 percent a year during his 2000-2008 tenure. Putin handed the presidency to Medvedev in 2008 because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms.
He justified his decision to seek re-election as president by saying Russia faced unresolved tasks, including the development of a more modern political system and economy that will guarantee citizens’ rights.
While Putin’s comments show he is aware of the scale of middle-class discontent, they don’t offer anything new and his determination to hang onto power remains the principal cause of the protests, said Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the Moscow-based International Institute of Political Expertise.
“I don’t think it is a serious effort to win over the middle class in big cities, who are behind the protests, as they will see Putin’s comments as insufficient,” he said by phone today. “Vladimir Putin still believes the current political system is almost ideal and it can continue to function.”
Putin is just short of the 50 percent support needed to win in the first round, according to the latest poll by the state- run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion.
The Russian leader would get 48 percent in a presidential election, compared with 10 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and 9 percent for Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, according to the survey of 1,600 Russians conducted Jan. 7-8. The margin of error was 3.4 percentage points.
Opposition politicians and political analysts including Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, say Putin doesn’t have enough popularity to win an outright victory. Zyuganov said on Jan. 11 that a first-round win for Putin in the election is impossible, “even with major fraud.”
If there is no winner in the March 4 vote, a second round will be held within 21 days.
--Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Paul Abelsky
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