— In his first address to parliament since taking office for an unprecedented third term, President Vladimir Putin vowed to strengthen Russia's economy and build its ailing military.
Putin addressed lawmakers, officials and clerics who gathered in the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall. During his speech, Putin said Russia will not allow other governments to influence the country's domestic policies.
Direct or indirect foreign meddling in Russia’s internal political processes is unacceptable, he said. Putin went on say individuals who receive money from abroad for their political activity, and hence serve foreign national interests, cannot be politicians in the Russian Federation.
Russian dignitarites applaud before President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the nation address in the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 12, 2012.
Putin has maintained that foreign countries, mainly the United States, have been encouraging and funding the mass protests he has faced since Russian parliamentary elections last December, a charge Washington denies.
As a result, the U.S. Agency for International Development was forced to close its offices in Russia after more than 20 years of working to create a civil society there. The Kremlin claimed the organization was trying to use its money to influence politics in the country. The United States says this is not true.
In addition, non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and participate in political activities are now required to register as foreign agents, a term that dates back to Soviet times and is synonymous with espionage.
Putin's speech comes just days before the country’s opposition is expected to take to the streets to protest against him again. He took office in May during mass demonstrations, the largest the country has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His critics accuse him of running the government through corruption and a tightly controlled political system.
Moscow city officials have yet to give permission for the upcoming, but opposition leaders are calling on their supporters to attend despite this. If the demonstration is not sanctioned, those who participate in or organize such rallies face fines that have been increased more than 150-fold -- sums far greater than the annual salary of an average Russian. The measure is among a series of Russian laws swiftly passed this year restricting civic freedoms and foreign influence.
The Kremlin has consistently maintained that it is operating within the law and that the measures are meant to strengthen security and keep the public safe.
Critics say the new legislation is designed to suppress information and stifle dissent.
In his speech, the Russian leader acknowledged the need for change, but warned that dialogue is possible only with those political forces acting within the law. He said change and modernization of the political system are natural and even necessary. He added that paying for "the thirst for change with the destruction of the state is unacceptable."
Putin also maintained that the country’s task on the global stage will be to preserve its national and spiritual identity, adding that a strong military would most likely guarantee Russia’s independence and stability.
The president’s comments are in stark contrast to his predecessor, now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who vowed to streamline Russia’s military by cutting costs and jobs.
Putin also promised to stamp out corruption and create 25 million new jobs and incentives for doctors, teachers and engineers, among others. Finally, he repeated a pledge to reduce Russia's heavy reliance on oil and other mineral exports and to encourage the development of the country's high-tech industry.