Russian President delivers annual public address

This year, Russia’s economic growth will reach around four per cent, Dmitry Medvedev told the Federal Assembly during the annual public address, which traditionally outlines Russia's goals and achievements.

Medvedev pointed out some other of Russia’s victories: unemployment has been reduced by two million people since the peak of the crisis, and the sovereign debt is minimal.

The president underlined the country’s need for more medium and small businesses, which, he said, will provide badly-needed jobs. To secure their growth, the government has adopted a lower tax rate of 26 per cent for medium and small businesses.

Attaining economic growth of 40 per cent by 2020 is quite a realistic goal for Russia, Medvedev said, and much has already been done.

“We have achieved a lot, but this is just the beginning. The resources we have should be used to modernize our economy, to create new, competitive goods and services, and millions of jobs. We need to shape the demand for innovation. I have commissioned the government to use at least half of the saved resources and additional resources to support the priorities of our modernization,” Medvedev said.

However the ultimate goal of modernization, he pointed out, is to raise the quality of life of Russia’s people, especially the younger generation.

Medvedev underlined that social responsibility lies at the heart of the country’s policy.

He praised Russia’s improving demographic situation: since 2005, the birth rate in Russia has grown by 21 per cent. However to keep the situation from worsening again, considerable governmental support is required, he said.

This includes a wide variety of measures, from availability of better medical services for mothers and children and further development of the maternity capital program to state support for infertility treatment programs the and modernization of children’s clinics.

26 million Russian children should be able to develop properly. They should grow up happy and they should become worthy citizens of Russia. This should become our goal number one. Taking care of the future generations is the smartest kind of investment. A society that truly protects the rights of children and respects children’s dignity is not just the kindest society, it is the best-developing society,” Medvedev said.

Medvedev preached the necessity of supporting families with children, such as tax benefits, direct financial help and better childcare facilities.

­Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor says it is striking how much of Medvedev’s speech was dedicated to children, youth and the demographic situation, and how long the president’s to-do list in this respect was.

“He spent almost half of that address talking about children and youth, and he kept returning, even when he went into other subjects, even when he talked about international policy, he was returning to the youth theme. We can see that motif that he gave, that we should not pass on a Russia to our children that we are ashamed of. That’s his theme,” Weir said.

­The Russian leader also touched upon the problem of corruption. He said that the current penal code does not stop officials from taking bribes and the current sanctions in the form of imprisonment do not scare bribe-takers.

Medvedev suggested that commercial bribery, and also the giving and taking of bribes, must be punished by fines in the amount of up to one hundred times the amount of the bribe.

However political analyst Alexey Pushkov says it is not the legislation that is not sufficient to defeat corruption; it is the way this legislation is implemented.

“What is most important when you fight corruption is that the laws are being not just proclaimed, but implemented,” he said.

“It can be a fine, it can be jail, it can be five years, it can be 15 years. The most important thing is that people who take bribes know that they will suffer. In Russia we have enough laws to fight corruption. The problem is that the laws are not being implemented. People are covering people. Very high-placed people are covering other high-placed people, and so the system is very much corrupt. So my personal opinion is, you have to enforce the existing laws.”

­The president also elaborated on the issue of a joint missile defense system with Europe.

“In the next decade, we have the following alternative – either we reach an agreement on missile defense and create a full-blown mechanism for co-operation; or, if we fail to have a constructive agreement, a new stage of the arms race will start and we will have to make a decision on creating new strike forces,” he said.

“What Medvedev said today is actually an invitation to continue talks, which they started at the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon last week, because if NATO continues with its own missile shield, then inevitably Russia will need to consider other options – I do not believe in [an] arms race, but there will be again a reshaping of the confrontation of the past,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, told RT.

Dmitry Babich, political analyst from the RIA Novosti news agency, says that Medvedev, in this statement, has just reiterated the idea that he expressed at the Russia-NATO summit last week.

“The main problem is how Russia is going to be viewed by NATO. If it is going to be viewed as a serious partner in building that entire missile defense that would cover all of Eurasia, then there is no point for another arms race. Medvedev made it very clear just a few days ago at the Lisbon summit that he does not want the formal participation of Russia in that project. “We are not going to be part of the furniture”, as he [Medvedev] said,” Babich told RT.

However defense projects are not all there is to foreign relations, Medvedev noted.

“We need to step up economic diplomacy. It should provide specific results for modernization. Our foreign policy should not be just based on missiles; it should be specific achievements that are understandable to our people, creating joint ventures in Russia, producing high-quality inexpensive goods, facilitating the visa regime. Such a pragmatic approach meets with understanding from our foreign partners.”

Anton Bespalov, a journalist from the Voice of Russia radio station, thinks that it is the economic crisis that prompts Medvedev to focus more on international relations: ties with EU, NATO and the United States.

“In the past year, Russia realized the need to improve its relationship with the West – the European Union in particular,” he said. “The reason why these relations are improving is in fact the global economic crisis, which helped both sides to more realistically assess their capabilities. Russia and the European Union are probably needing each other more than ever.”

Igor Zevelev, head of the MacArthur Foundation’s Moscow office, added that partnership with Asian countries, especially with China is very important for Russia as well.

“The emphasis in this part of the address was on so-called economic diplomacy. I think it will be interesting for Asian partners, particularly for China. Russia’s appeal to them is to do what they have started with Europe – namely, partnership for modernization,” he stressed.

­Sergey Brilev, a journalist and TV host, points out that Medvedev’s attention to the opinions expressed by politically-motivated people on the Internet is quite wise.

“Typically, 80 per cent of the letters people send to the president are about social security, medical care, central heating and that sort of thing. But there’s always this five per cent dedicated to political liberties and freedom, and President Medvedev, because he is a modern guy – let me use this definition – pays quite a lot attention to this five per cent. They do not form public opinion in this country, but they matter. They are educated people who actually think. And in any kind of political system…politically motivated, educated people do play a role,” he said.

The joint Russia-NATO ABM defense shield was proposed even earlier at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Sergey Strokan from Russia's Kommersant Publishing House noted, but the steps that would lead to such a deal have yet to be taken. The sides must agree on many practical issues such as threats and challenges, specify the roles of the parties in the future system, make a deal on financing the system – all these points are still far from consensus.

The European joint ‘all-embracing security system’ could be created ‘within a period of ten years, maybe less’ believes Strokan.

As for the joint Eurasian economic space, Sergey Strokan believes Russia’s relationship with powerful Asian regional blocks like ASEAN is still lagging behind, while political and economic co-operation with such regional blocks is crucial for development of Russia’s vast territories beyond the Urals.