Putin touts strong Russia ahead of 2012 vote

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin forecast strong growth in his annual address to Russia's parliament on Wednesday, delivered amid a flurry of rumours about his plans to seek the presidency next year.

Putin opened what was expected to be a marathon session stretching over several hours by outlining the country's economic achievements and stressing his desire for stability.

"I believe that it is our joint achievement that Russia -- in this very difficult period of global crisis -- managed to avoid serious shocks and risks," he told the special State Duma lower house of parliament session.

"We did not shy away from our responsibilities before the country -- we took the full responsibility on ourselves," he added to a round of applause.

Putin also predicted annual growth this year of at least 4.2 percent of and inflation ranging between 6.5 and 7.5 percent -- in line with government expectations announced in 2010 and.

And in a veiled swipe at the performance of Western capitalist economies, Putin said Russia "needs a decade of constant and stable development -- no jerks or rash experiments based on liberalism".

He also characteristically touted Russia's military and diplomatic strength by noting that the country will never be bullied by foreign forces.

"In the modern world, if you are weak, someone will surely come or fly in and advise you about which direction you should take," the country's former president and foreign intelligence agent noted.

But Putin's message is being particularly closely watched for signs of any divisions between himself and President Dmitry Medvedev amid indications that both men have their eye on the top Kremlin post next year.

Medvedev unexpectedly raised the presidential election issue earlier this month by telling a Chinese television channel that he will make up his mind about whether or not to run shortly.

Both he and Putin -- the so-called Russian "tandem" who identify themselves as very close colleagues -- had previously ruled out running against each other and vowed to decide on a single candidacy between themselves in private.

Most analysts view Putin as the senior partner and believe that he will make the ultimate decision about which of them should seek the six-year term -- a constitutional extension of the four years now served by presidents.

Putin responded to Medvedev's comments by arguing that the decision should not be rushed because an early announcement would leave half of Russia's current administrators feeling left out and therefore ineffective at work.

Several Moscow newspapers predicted Wednesday that Putin would be not be addressing the election directly but rather outline his achievements in what could otherwise be read as a pre-election address.

Putin's top spokesman has confirmed that the prime minister will know 23 of the 32 questions lawmakers will pose after the speech as the Duma's rules stipulate that most of the queries are submitted beforehand in writing.

The speculation over who will run for president has already prompted several prominent pro-government deputies to openly side with Medvedev rather than his predecessor Putin.

The head of the Just Russia party that has a nearly-perfected pro-government voting record received Putin's speech with a healthy dose of scepticism.

"The general mood (in the country) is of social discomfort and despair," Just Russia faction leader Nikolai Levichev was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

"The government should be responsible for how society feels," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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