Putin pledges fight against poverty and more help for families in pre-election speech

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual State of the Union address.
  • The speech comes ahead of Russian presidential elections on March 18.
  • "Our top priority is to preserve the people of Russia and improve their welfare," he said to applause.
  • He added that it was "unacceptable" that 20 million people in Russia are living below the poverty line.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russia is at a turning point in its history but faces many challenges, including the need to improve the quality of life of all Russians, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Delivering his annual State of the Union address in Moscow, Putin said: "We still have many problems in Russia," warning of the risk of Russia "falling behind."

"Our top priority is to preserve the people of Russia and improve their welfare," he said to applause. He added that it was "unacceptable" that 20 million people in Russia are living below the poverty line.

"We need to renew our employment system … (and) we need to create modern, high-paying jobs and sustainable long-term growth of incomes."

New challenges were on the horizon, he added, including technological changes and the need to strengthen local government and the judiciary. "We need to be open to new ideas and initiatives," he said.

The State of the Union address is the last one that Putin will make before a president election on March 18.

Against a backdrop of weak opposition in Russia and allegations of ongoing harassment of his political opponents, Putin is expected to win the election comfortably and enter a fourth term of leadership.

With topics covering maternity pay, hospital improvement and childcare as well as urban development and education, affordable housing and reducing mortgage rates, on top of job creation, the wide-ranging speech seemed to be designed to appeal to voters ahead of the election.

He pledged that the state would spend 3.4 trillion rubles ($60.07 billion) to support families and demographic growth in the next six years. He also promised to spend 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health care and said the country must spend 11 trillion rubles ($194.32 billion) on road infrastructure.

Russia should aim to be in the world's top five economies and to increase its GDP per capita by 1.5 percent in the next ten years, he added, again to applause from lawmakers.

Strongman leader of Russia

The strongman leader of Russia is a dominant force in political life and has been since first becoming prime minister in 1999, and alternating between that role and president (the Russian constitution does not allow presidents to serve more than two consecutive terms) up to the present day.

Putin's critics say that he has become increasingly autocratic and that there is no political plurality in Russia. A number of critics, the most high-profile being former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, have died in suspicious circumstances too, making politics something of a deadly business in Russia. The Kremlin denied any involvement and Putin took charge of an investigation into Nemtsov's death.

There's no doubt that Putin has restored Russia to the status of global superpower during his time in power although it has both lost and gained friends in the process.

The country is still under international sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014, as well as its alleged role in a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine in the same year. The sanctions have hurt Russia's economy although it emerged from a recession last year. The International Monetary Fund predicts gross domestic product growth of 1.7 percent in 2018.

Putin said Russia's low inflation rate and general stability of the economy offered the opportunity to lower interest rates, making loans more easily accessible.

"I hope the Bank of Russia will support me here," he said.

In order to create conditions for further economic growth, Russia needed to increase productivity and salaries, and promote business investment, he said.

"I hope that the next government and the Bank of Russia will present a specific program on how to get there," he said.

Further afield, the country now has major influence in the Middle East having supported the country's controversial leader Bashar al Assad in Syria and is now playing an influential role in a peace process to resolve the civil war.

Meanwhile, Russia is attracting attention for all the wrong reasons in the U.S.

Despite apparently cordial relations between President Donald Trump and Putin, international headlines have been dominated by a U.S. investigation into whether the Russian state was involved in meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. So far, the investigation has charged individuals and businesses with interference, saying they sought to undermine Trump's rival Hillary Clinton. The Kremlin denies any involvement.