Putin speech may offer clues on next Russian govt

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin will play up his economic achievements on Wednesday in his last annual address to Parliament as Prime Minister.

Moscow: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin will play up his economic achievements on Wednesday in his last annual address to Parliament as Prime Minister, a speech that will be scoured for clues on the makeup of his next administration.

The set-piece speech, which comes less than a month before Putin is sworn in on May 7, will offer the once and future Kremlin chief - a master of policy detail - a platform to set out a growth agenda for his six-year term.

But Putin, 59, will face tough questions from opposition lawmakers emboldened by the largest protests of his 12-year-old rule over alleged ballot fraud in December`s parliamentary election and last month`s presidential vote.

Police guarding the State Duma (lower house of parliament) detained one of the protest organizers, leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, as he tried to join some 30 anti-Putin demonstrators hours before the 12 p.m. (0800 GMT) address.

While the focus of the annual report is on the economy, Putin - accused by the opposition of stifling political dissent - may also offer glimpses of his foreign policy priorities after a campaign colored by his harsh criticism of the West.

Opponents and foreign governments are watching for signs Putin could expand the limited political reforms the Kremlin offered during a winter of protests or go the other way and crack down on perceived challenges to his grip on power.

Putin`s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on the eve of the address that Putin would outline "priority steps" and give "a detailed review of the state of the Russian economy and the social sphere".

Russia`s economy is in moderate recovery, but concerns are mounting that Putin`s pre-election spending pledges will make the public finances of the world`s largest energy producer more vulnerable than ever to an oil-price crash.

Putin has said he would name outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister in a job swap with the protégé he helped into the Kremlin four years ago, but the shape of the next government is unclear.

Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister who nursed the budget through the 2008-09 crisis before quitting last year, has ruled out a return to government, saying he cannot support its fiscal profligacy.

"With such dependency (on oil), we now always face the risk of an economic shock," Kudrin said in a newspaper interview on Tuesday after he launched a liberal policy task force last week that has been called a `shadow government` by some commentators.

No names

Peskov said that Putin`s speech, which was expected to last about 1-1/2 hours, will not propose a new government line-up.

But he will pass judgment on the performance of members of his government team, Peskov added. That could give some clarity, at least, regarding ministers on their way out.

"It is impossible to talk about the work of the cabinet as a whole without addressing individual sectors. It is difficult for me to say whether any names will be mentioned but areas of the economy will be mentioned for sure," Peskov said.

The lack of clarity over the makeup of the next government has sparked media speculation, in particular regarding the fate of Igor Sechin, a long-time Putin ally who as deputy premier now controls Russian energy policy.


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