Prime Minister and president-elect Vladimir Putin tried to avoid politics in his final report to the State Duma on Wednesday, but his speech resulted in dozens of opposition lawmakers walking out.
Putin focused on economics and social affairs in his report, his last in his current capacity. But he also had to field questions from legislators, one of whom asked him to comment on the situation in Astrakhan, where a mayoral candidate with A Just Russia party, Oleg Shein, is on the 27th day of a hunger strike to protest alleged vote fraud that cost him his victory.
“From what I know, your colleague Shein went on hunger strike, but never complained to court. This is somewhat strange, to tell the truth,” said Putin, who will be inaugurated as president on May 7.
This prompted deputies with A Just Russia, which holds 64 of 450 seats in the Duma, to walk out. Party member Yelena Drapeko said Putin showed “certain indifference to the situation.”
Putin dismissed the walkout after his Duma speech as an “element of political competition.”
“We must respect each other, listen to and hear the minority, inside and outside the parliament, draw conclusions from it. But any minority must respect the majority’s choice,” Putin said.
Shein, who received support from leaders of this winter’s mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow, said earlier that government officials were stalling preparations for a lawsuit.
Most of Putin’s own speech in the lower chamber was dedicated to his Cabinet’s economic achievements in 2008-2012 and plans for the future.
“In the beginning of 2012 Russian GDP exceeded the pre-crisis level, just as we planned,” Putin said. “This means our economy has completely overcome the consequences of the economic downturn of 2008, 2009 and partly even 2010.”
“In our estimates, in two to three years Russia will join the group of the world’s top five economies,” Putin said.
He promised radical improvement in the investment climate, saying he will introduce a batch of legislative amendments for that cause in the parliament by 2013. The list will include regional and federal ombudsmen for businesses and, possibly, a special prosecutor to protect entrepreneurs.
The government hopes that Russia will rise 100 slots to 20th place in the World Bank’s global rating of conditions for businesses in the coming years, Putin said.
Foreign companies will be allowed to participate in the privatization of the Russian military-industrial complex, though the process will be overseen by the government, he said.
Speaking about foreign policy, Putin called NATO “an atavism of the Cold War,” but said the bloc can still play a positive role in international affairs, as evidenced by its efforts to combat drug production in Afghanistan.
Putin also touched on Libya, where the new country leadership is “sending signals that they want to maintain economic ties” with Russia. Putin said both countries could benefit from collaboration in railroad, mining and arms industries, which began under deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
He also praised Russia’s WTO entry, set to be completed this summer, saying it will help modernize the country’s economy.
Putin pledged in his speech to implement a road map on the promises made during his successful presidential campaign earlier this year. The list includes more funding for higher education, better mortgages and a set of measures to improve Russia’s demographics and narrow the income gap.
The country has managed to reverse the downward demographic trend, though it still faces a “demographic echo” from the 1990s, when births were at a record low, and needs to combat it by supporting family and morality, Putin said.
“We’ve completed the post-Soviet period. A new phase of Russia’s development is ahead of us, the phase of arranging a new … system that would ensure the well-being of our citizens for decades to come,” he said.