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Putin Urges Lawmakers to Focus on Improving Living Standards - 2003-12-29

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the new session of the lower house of parliament, the Duma, on Monday, saying the new legislature has its work cut out in the coming year. He spoke in a chamber filled with deputies who give him near-total support.

Russia's newly elected parliament deputies gathered for their first session just three weeks after an election that saw pro-Kremlin parties win an overwhelming majority.

In his brief address, President Putin told the deputies their priority must be to improve living standards in the country. He focused on problems in the education and health care systems that he said need to be addressed in the coming year. Then he told the deputies of their broader responsibility in building what he called Russia's emerging democracy.

"Democracy does not end with the election process," said Mr. Putin. "The parliament's role is a key part of developing our democratic institutions. The parliament itself should serve as a model of democracy."

The Russian leader was speaking to a largely converted audience. Close to two-thirds of the new deputies are members of United Russia, the party that was created as a support vehicle for Mr. Putin.

Only a small fraction of deputies are from opposition parties, including the Communists, who saw their support cut in half in the recent election. Two small liberal parties were all but wiped out in the vote, which some western observers said was flawed.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described the December 7 election as free, but not fair. Election monitors cited the Kremlin's dominance of broadcast media and its use of administrative resources as factors, which influenced the outcome.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls show that Mr. Putin has an approval rating of around 80 percent, as millions of ordinary Russians perceive him to be a man of action who has presided over steady growth in Russia's economy since he came to power four years ago.

Mr. Putin's popularity is such that his victory seems all but certain in the presidential election, due to be held next March. The Russian leader will run virtually unopposed after leading contenders from major parties dropped out of the race recently.

Communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov, the runner-up in the past two presidential elections, announced at a party meeting on Saturday that he will not run. The Communists instead nominated a little-known candidate after hours of debate about whether to even field anyone at all.

Mr. Zyuganov's move came shortly after ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also decided not to run. And the primary liberal candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, had earlier announced an effective boycott of the vote, saying there was no point in running if it was impossible to get his message across in the media.