Putin’s populist speech hints at Kremlin return

Vladimir Putin said on Friday that the government should be more responsive to people’s concerns, at a party congress that could indicate whether he plans to return to the Kremlin next year.

Addressing members of the ruling United Russia party, the prime minister avoided the tough talk for which he has become known, focusing instead on issues close to the country’s increasingly dissatisfied populace. He vowed wages would be raised to an average 24,000 roubles (£480) a month by the year’s end. He promised better education and a renewed focus on pensioners, and acknowledged the problems of corruption and excessive bureaucracy.

Putin also mentioned the work of the country’s struggling human rights community – but implied the government should take over. “There is a category of people who criticise me,” Putin said, saying they “belong to the so-called human rights defender category”.

“They are not many but they, as a rule, bring attention to those problems that seem to neither affect nor relate to people’s everyday life,” he said. “But without solving these problems, society will not develop, it won’t feel complete.” It was the government’s job, he said, to address those problems.

The two-day United Russia congress may provide hints as to who will become Russia’s next president, a post widely expected to be taken back by Putin, who is also the leader – though not a member – of the party. An announcement could come on Saturday, when both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, are due to address a rally of 10,000 people in the Luzhniki football stadium.

The recent increase in Putin’s publicity stunts – from riding a Harley Davidson to “discovering” ancient Greek urns while diving – is among the factors being taken as a sign he plans to return to the presidency.

The congress’s main task is to present a list of candidates for December’s parliamentary vote. The person chosen to head the list could be a sign of who the presidential candidate will be.

The overwhelming focus of Putin’s address, and his responses to questions from deputies, focused on economic issues, which rank at the top of voter concerns. The “most fundamental rights of citizens”, he said, were “salary, vacation, healthcare and education”.

Putin also took his traditional shots at the west, saying Russia’s justice system was “probably better” than that of the United States and disparaging the protests that have erupted in financially stricken parts of Europe.

In Russia, he said, “everything we do is done for the sake of the people – or, at least, that’s how it should be”.

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