MOSCOW (Reuters) - President-elect Vladimir Putin urged his opponents on Wednesday to put aside their differences with him for the sake of Russia’s economic and political future after months of protests and elections that divided the country.
But some deputies walked out of the State Duma lower house to protest his remarks about a disputed mayoral vote following his last annual speech to parliament as prime minister, underlining the growing challenge he faces from the opposition after the biggest protests of his 12-year rule.
Putin, who will be sworn in on May 7, said in his unemotional 1-1/2 hour speech that Russia was stronger after his four years in government and must now focus on boosting its population, improving economic growth, creating jobs, modernising the economy and strengthening its global position.
But to achieve this, he said, all political groups must unite following elections and four months of protests fuelled by anger over alleged electoral fraud and his domination of the world’s largest country.
“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 to occasional bursts of applause.
“But the logic of a mature democracy is that elections end and afterwards ... joint work always begins,” he said, reading his speech from a podium to rows of deputies.
The 59-year-old leader 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 was laced with populist references to Russia’s sovereignty, its economic progress and its ability to act alone on the world stage.
But although his authority has been dented by the protests, some of which brought tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets Moscow and other big cities before fading, Putin offered no new concessions to opponents who say he has stifled dissent.
The former KGB spy has already offered limited political reforms such as relaxing rules on the registration of political parties and, during questions after his speech, did not rule out bringing opposition representatives into government.
But his opponents, who fear he could seek another term when his presidency ends in 2018 and rule until 2024, have dismissed his concessions as token changes that preserve his domination of the political system.
Several deputies walked out of the Duma when Putin suggested a Just Russia party member who is on hunger strike over alleged fraud in a mayoral vote in the southern city of Astrakhan should take his dispute to court instead.
Losing candidate Oleg Shein has been on a hunger strike along with several supporters for nearly a month to protest the official result of the election in the southern city of Astrakhan which he lost to a rival from a pro-Kremlin party.
“As far as I know, your colleague ... started the hunger strike but did not appeal to court. This is a bit strange. Why go on hunger strike?” Putin said when a Just Russia deputy asked his opinion of the dispute.
Kremlin critics say courts are subject to pressure from the government and have had little success contesting results of a December parliamentary election in which allegations of fraud on behalf of Putin’s party sparked the protests against his rule.
Before Putin’s address, police had detained leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov and five other demonstrators as they and about 30 others tried to stage an anti-Putin protest outside the Duma before the address.
Russia’s economy is in moderate recovery after the 2008-09 global economic crisis, and Russia won praise for building up a big “rainy-day fund” that helped prevent economic meltdown.
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 said it was crucially important to improve the business and investment climate, calling it a test of Russia’s resolve and saying “no serious economic task” could be accomplished without improvements.
Putin, who has said he will name outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister in a job swap with the protégé he helped into the Kremlin in 2008, said his spending plans had been carefully calculated and defended his policies in general.
“Evaluating the results of the last four years, we can rightly say Russia has not only overcome the (global economic) crisis. We have taken a significant step forward. We are stronger than before,” he said.
Drawing comparisons with the chaotic 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin, when Russia needed an international bailout after defaulting on its debt, he pledged to build a “new economy” that could withstand external shocks without help from outside.
“Where can we go (if Russia needs the money)? Greece can go to Brussels. Where can we go?” Putin said.
He said Russia must create jobs, vowed to increase average wages by at least 1.6 to 1.7 times by 2020, and said he would diversify the economy.
He called for “bold, new steps” to tackle demographic problems which experts say could harm economic growth in the country of more than 140 million.
Putin, who gave no clues about the makeup of the next government, also said the government should consider investing money held in the larger of its two sovereign wealth funds in regional development and strategic projects.
That comment could, however, undermine efforts by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov to save Russia’s windfall oil revenues as insurance against any oil-price collapse.
Writing by Timothy Heritage and Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Steve Gutterman and Maria Golovnina