MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin today warned against foreign meddling in his country's internal affairs and offered guidelines to fight rampant government corruption. His comments came during an address to the National Assembly, one full of patriotic overtones.
Public officials should not be allowed to hold foreign bank accounts and must declare and explain any foreign assets, including real estate, Putin said. The comment was met by applause from the gathered politicians, but the Russian leader quickly quieted them by warning "Don't clap, you may not enjoy it."
His comments came amid what appears to be his first concerted effort to pursue corruption at the highest levels of government. Putin dismissed Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov last month amid a widening corruption scandal in his ministry, signaling for the first time that even senior officials might no longer be immune to scrutiny.
No charges have been brought against Serdyukov, however, and no other top officials have been singled out, bringing into question just how much bloodletting Putin will allow.
The remarks also come around the one-year anniversary of the first large street protests against him and the ruling United Russia party, after what was widely believed to be a fraudulent parliamentary election. The protests continued in the past year, but the opposition remains divided and many wonder how many will turn out for the next march Saturday.
In his comments to the National Assembly today, Putin acknowledged that corruption is holding back progress in his country. He said public officials must practice "self-restraint."
He also reiterated his support for a luxury tax, including on foreign cars.
Russia must work to strengthen its democracy, but quickly added that it cannot be imposed from outside, Putin said. He noted Russia's history as a "strong state" and stressed national unity and continuity. He supported more direct election of leaders and suggested that if an idea receives enough support on the Internet, the government should consider it.
He also said the state should ensure equal media access for opposition parties and, in what might be a veiled message to the country's fractured opposition, that his government would hold dialogue with people who put forth ideas in a "civilized" way. He said the country cannot be destroyed "for the sake of change."
Putin told the assembly that Russia's economy must diversify and move away from a reliance on natural resources, revenues from which account for a significant portion of the government budget. He said Russia can no longer afford to be held "hostage" by international commodity markets, noting that the country is "already running low" of key natural resources.
Instead, he suggested that Russia transform itself into an innovation economy and reform itself to create an easier business climate to attract global investment. He said that Russia should develop its agricultural sector and should become the world's biggest food exporter.
Putin praised Russia's multi-ethnic composition, calling for respect for all ethnicities, but also said that there should be strong migration controls, including "harsh" punishment for illegal immigration.
He also urged Russians to have more children, saying a family with three children should be the ideal. He praised Russian culture for having global influence, promised more assistance for World War II veterans and suggested a national memorial should be built to honor those who fought in World War I.