Putin seeks unity after protests, polls
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President-elect Vladimir Putin called on all political forces to unite on Wednesday to help Russia develop peacefully after elections that caused tension and triggered "political battles" that divided the country.
In his last annual address to parliament as prime minister, Putin hailed the achievements of his four years in government, saying it had brought stability, increased living standards, reduced inflation and staunched a demographic crisis.
The 59-year-old leader, who will be inaugurated for a six-year presidential term on May 7, also reached out to his opponents after allegations of electoral fraud and frustration with his political domination of Russia sparked the biggest demonstrations since he rose to power 12 years ago.
"The country has gone through a tense period of parliamentary and presidential elections. And today the echoes of the heightened emotions and political battles can still be heard," Putin told the Duma, reading his speech from a podium as deputies sat listening quietly.
"But the logic of a mature democracy is that elections end and afterwards ... joint work always begins," he said, suggesting opponents should put the political struggle behind them.
Calling for unity, he added: "We have one Russia, and its modern, advanced development must be the goal that unites all the country's political forces that want to work to build it."
The speech, expected to last 1-1/2 hours, was likely to be scoured for clues on the makeup of his next government and offer the once and future Kremlin chief a platform to set out an agenda for economic growth when he returns as president.
The former KGB spy was also expected to face tough questions from opposition lawmakers emboldened by the protests and looking for signs that he might open up a political system that has long stifled dissent.
Police guarding the Duma detained leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, one of the leaders of the protests that began after a parliamentary election in December, as he tried to join some 30 anti-Putin demonstrators before the address. About five other demonstrators were also detained.
The focus of the annual report was on the economy, although Putin could also offer glimpses of his foreign policy priorities after a campaign coloured 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 the winter of protests or go the other way and crack down on perceived challenges to his grip on power.
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.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage and Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Steve Gutterman)
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