As poll numbers fall, Putin vows to improve living conditions

President Vladimir Putin promised Russians rapid improvements in their living conditions as he delivered his annual state of the nation address on Wednesday under pressure from falling approval ratings.

Putin, who was elected to a fourth term last year with more than 76% of the vote, laid out a series of new measures in his speech to Russia’s two houses of Parliament.

His promises seemed aimed at addressing growing discontent over the dismal living conditions, especially outside Moscow, that many Russians still face nearly 20 years after Putin came to power.

“We cannot wait, the situation must change for the better now,” Putin told assembled lawmakers from the lower house State Duma and upper house Federation Council.

“Within this year (Russians) should feel changes,” he said, promising a wide range of steps including new child benefits and lower taxes for larger families.

“We did and will do everything for the strengthening of family values,” he said. “The incomes of Russian families should of course rise”.

Putin, 66, appeared calm and confident as usual during the speech, but the Kremlin is reportedly deeply concerned by the fall in his personal approval ratings in recent months.

A survey by Russia’s independent Levada Center released in January found his approval rating at 64% — a figure many Western leaders could only dream of, but Putin’s lowest in five years.

Unpopular reforms

Russians appear increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of economic growth and the concentration of the country’s wealth in a few hands in Moscow.

Moves by the government to implement economic reforms, including an increase in the retirement age and a rise in the value-added tax from January 1, have prompted widespread opposition including rare street protests.

Another Levada poll in October found only 40% of Russians would vote for Putin if an election were held.

Last year, Putin used his annual address to unveil a new arsenal of weapons in a nearly two-hour speech that stunned the West and many in Russia.

Speaking two weeks before his 2018 re-election, Putin hailed Moscow’s military might as relations with the West reached post-Cold War lows.

Nearly an hour into this year’s speech, Putin had yet to address any international issues.

He was expected to touch on the withdrawal of Russia and the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which has raised concerns of a new arms race.

He was also likely to cover the crisis in Venezuela, where Moscow has accused the West of “destructive interference” and stood by its ally President Nicolas Maduro.

© Agence France-Presse

Michael Mainville
AFP Moscow bureau chief.
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