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Putin delivers state of nation address as popularity wanes

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (The Kremlin/Released)
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This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

President Vladimir Putin has called for a raft of measures to lift up Russian families as polls show trust in the Russian leader is at near record lows as average Russians struggle to make ends meet.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on February 20 to Russia’s two-chamber parliament — the Federal Assembly — Putin said the country can now invest “colossal” resources in its development, using money “earned, not borrowed.”

Putin promised Russians better living conditions “within this year.”

“We cannot wait, the situation must change for the better now,” Putin said, outlining plans to give average Russians, especially families, tax breaks.

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This year’s speech comes with a recent poll showing public trust in Putin has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years amid continuing economic woes.

More than one in five Russians now lives in poverty, according to recent research by an institute with links to the Kremlin. Nationwide protests broke out in 2018 over the government’s plans to raise the age of eligibility for pensions.

Russia still faces international sanctions for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, as well as its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 have died since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

Putin has dominated politics in Russia for two decades, serving as president or prime minister since 1999.

In his address, Putin gave a positive spin to Russia’s economy, boasting for the first time that the country’s currency reserves cover external debt obligations and predicted Russia’s economic growth should exceed 3 percent by 2021.

Putin also said “honest businesses” should not live in fear of prosecution.

Those comments come amid the high-profile arrest of U.S. investor Michael Calvey, who is currently in pre-trial detention on Russian fraud charges that he and his company call completely baseless. Several prominent Kremlin loyalists have also expressed doubt about the charges.

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Elsewhere, Putin said the railway link to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, will start working this year.

It will be the 15th time Putin has given the address to an audience that traditionally includes both houses of the legislature, or Federal Assembly; government ministers; judges from the Constitutional and Supreme courts; leading regional officials; and other members of the political elite.

This year’s speech comes with a recent poll showing public trust in Putin has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years amid continuing economic woes. More than one in five Russians now lives in poverty, according to recent research by an institute with links to the Kremlin. Nationwide protests broke out in 2018 over the government’s plans to raise the age of eligibility for pensions.

Russia still faces international sanctions for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, as well as its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 people have died since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

The address is one of three regularly scheduled national appearances Putin makes each year — the others being a lavish question-and-answer session with the public and a stage-managed annual press conference.

During his address last year, Putin focused on what he boasted were breakthroughs in the nation’s military arsenal. Putin unveiled six nuclear-capable weapons and claimed they were unparalleled in the world.

“I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed at containing our country’s development: Everything that you wanted to impede with your policies has already happened,” he said last year. “You have failed to contain Russia.”

In the past, the state-of-the-nation speech has traditionally been given in December but in 2018 it was postponed until March. Critics charged that the move last year violated election laws, giving Putin free campaign advertising ahead of the country’s presidential election.

Landfill Woes

Government sources told the independent Dozhd TV station that foreign policy issues will take a backseat in Putin’s speech this year.

Instead, the sources said Putin will try to offer solutions to the pressing problems Russians face, including a trash problem as the nation runs out of landfill.

Protests against solid-waste disposal plans swept Russia in 2018, particularly after March 21 when dozens of children in the Moscow Oblast town of Volokolamsk were hospitalized with suspected poisoning caused by noxious gases emanating from a local landfill. Several thousand people turned out for a demonstration there in early April.

As the trash mounts so does the anxiety among Russians about the state of the economy, which is emerging from a recession largely caused by Western sanctions and low oil prices.

Russia’s state statistics agency recently announced gross-domestic-product growth of 2.3 percent in 2018. That was much higher than most forecasts, sparking questions over whether Rosstat may have tampered with the data.

Whether the numbers are true or not, more and more Russians are struggling to get by.

In a November 21 report, the Kremlin-linked Russian Presidential Academy of the National Economy and Public Administration said 22 percent of Russians fall into the “poverty zone,” meaning they are unable to buy anything beyond basic staples needed for subsistence.

With poverty up, Putin’s numbers are down.

A poll by the Public Opinion Research Center, or VTsIOM, released on January 17 found that trust in Putin had fallen to 33.4 percent, its lowest level since 2006.

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