Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia has no future, if it turns its back on democracy. In his annual state-of-the-nation address Monday at the Kremlin's Marble Hall, he urged lawmakers and the public to strengthen democracy and rule of law.

President Putin says freedom, rule of law and a basic respect for human rights must be the hallmark of Russian institutions and society, as the nation works toward his promise of a better future.

In remarks broadcast live on state television, President Putin said Russia's place in the world will be defined by strength and success in both democratic and economic gains.

Much of the focus of his nearly 50-minute address was on business, the economy and what he says is the overriding need to fight corruption.

Mr. Putin says Russia's state bureaucrats and the country's wealthiest oligarchs still think in terms of personal gain, rather than in terms of gains for society overall. That has to change, he said, before Russians can better share in the country's wealth, and meet the goal of joining Western financial institutions, such as the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Putin also took rare aim at the tax police, saying they do not have the right to terrorize business.

Mr. Putin says tax officials should focus on checking current tax bills, rather than chasing companies for years of back-taxes. He also again urged lawmakers to shorten the statute of limitations from 10 years to three years on reviews of controversial privatizations of state businesses dating back to the 1990s.

Mr. Putin's comments are widely believed aimed at easing investors' continued concerns over the Yukos affair, which many analysts believe is political retaliation for the oil company's former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's, financing of opposition political parties.

Mr. Khodorkovsky faces up to 10 years in jail, if convicted of multiple charges of tax evasion and fraud. A verdict in the case is expected this Wednesday. Meanwhile, new tax claims earlier this month against another oil giant, TNK-BP, have done little to restore investor confidence.

Media freedom in Russia is another domestic issue that has drawn criticism from abroad, especially what is seen by many as a lack of access for opposition political parties. President Putin sought to stem those concerns, saying his government would work to ensure that all parliamentary factions have equal access to the media.

President Putin stressed that objectivity should be the goal of any future efforts to reform Russian media.

Unlike last year's address, Mr. Putin made brief mention of Chechnya, where Russian federal forces are locked in a guerrilla-style war with separatists. He said he believes that Kremlin-backed parliamentary elections are the only way to break the cycle of violence and secure regional security in the southern Russian republic.

Mr. Putin also said that efforts to strengthen law and order across Russia would help remove the threat of international terrorism, which he said is still very strong in Russia.

President Putin's sixth state-of-the-nation address also covered social issues; including the need for better housing, concern about falling birth rates and the scourges of AIDS and alcoholism.