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Medvedev pushes reforms under Putin’s watchful eye

Moscow — President Dmitry Medvedev presented a sweeping vision on Thursday for Russia’s transformation into a democratic, high-tech society but warned against efforts to "destabilise" the country.

In his annual address to the nation, Medvedev walked a tightrope between calls for liberal political and economic reforms and the strongman legacy of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev, who became president last year, is still widely seen as being weaker than Putin, who is now prime minister, and the speech was closely watched for any signs Medvedev’s independence from his powerful mentor.

"In the 21st century, our country again requires modernisation in all areas, and this will be the first time in our history when modernisation will be based on the values and institutions of democracy," Medvedev said.

Speaking to hundreds of officials and cultural elites in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George Hall, Medvedev called for Russia to become "a society of smart, free and responsible people."

But with Putin seated prominently in the front row before the podium, the Russian president cautioned: "Any attempts to rock the situation, destabilise the government and rend society under slogans of democracy will be stopped."

Medvedev said Russia must diversify away from its dependence on the export of raw materials and reduce the state role in the economy, which would undo a key legacy of Putin’s presidency.

"We will build a new economy instead of a primitive resource-oriented economy," Medvedev said, adding that the competitiveness of Russia’s manufactured goods "shamefully low."

The president had harsh words for Russia’s "state corporations," the array of government-owned industrial behemoths created during Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency which control huge swathes of the country’s economy.

Such companies "have no future," Medvedev said, adding that "inefficient companies must be liquidated."

Analysts say the opaque structure of the state corporations — which oversee sectors like car manufacturing, aviation, nuclear energy and arms — has given vast powers to the close Putin associates who head them.

On foreign policy, Medvedev signalled that Russia would broadly follow the priorities of the Putin years, when Moscow pushed back against the global dominance of the United States.

"We will work actively for the United Nations to strengthen its position," he said, calling for multilateral, UN-mediated solutions to problems like the standoffs over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes.

Medvedev laid out a series of other policy proposals, including a call to relocate residents of struggling Soviet-built "mono-cities," towns where the local economy depends on a single employer.

He pledged support for the creation of nuclear engines for space travel and said Russia should consider reducing the number of its time zones.

Some politicians have proposed consolidating Russia’s 11 time zones in an effort to tighten ties between Moscow and the country’s far eastern Pacific coast regions.

Medvedev also outlined some proposed domestic political reforms aimed at "strengthening democratic institutions" and improving the access of opposition parties to power, particularly in local and regional elections.

"There is one law for all, the ruling party and the opposition," Medvedev said.

Under Putin, the United Russia party became a monolith with over two-thirds of the seats in the national parliament while small democratic parties were shut out of power.

In a sign of how Putin is still seen as the stronger leader, Forbes magazine placed him in third place on its list of the world’s most powerful people on Thursday, while Medvedev was ranked 43rd.

Medvedev "is trying to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor," said political analyst Alexander Konovalov, head of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments. "He is trying to show that he differs in some ways from Putin and that he has his own perspective and he wants to implement this."

Alexander Osipovich/AFP/Expatica