In his strongest hint yet that he wants to return to the presidency next year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday told Russian MPs that the country needs a "strong and calm" decade to ensure economic growth. He cautioned against "unnecessary liberalism", in what many will see as a swipe against the current President Dmitry Medvedev.
Both men have refused to rule out standing in presidential elections due next March, and in recent weeks the pair have started to disagree publicly for the first time since Mr Medvedev was shoehorned into the Kremlin by Mr Putin in 2008. Previously, the men have said they will make a decision between themselves about which one will stand. It is unlikely they would stand against each other in an open contest.
Mr Putin, a former KGB agent who is known for his tough talk and macho stunts, used his speech to the Russian parliament yesterday to call for political stability and wheel out Soviet-style rhetoric about unspecified foreign foes.
"In the modern world, if you are weak, there is always someone who will come in and unequivocally recommend which way to go, what policy to conduct, what path to choose," Mr Putin said. "The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments based on unjustified liberalism or social demagoguery."
Mr Medvedev has portrayed himself as more modern, technologically savvy and interested in limited democratic reform, although there has been little real change during his rule.
Mr Putin detailed a long list of past achievements and future promises in his two-hour address, which often sounded like an electoral-campaign pitch. He took credit for steering Russia out of the financial crisis quickly and announced measures to help solve the country's "demographic crisis". Russia's population has been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union due to low life expectancy and falling birth rates. Mr Putin said over £30bn would be spent on projects to help boost the birth rate by 25-30 per cent from 2006 levels over the next decade, and to increase average life expectancy to 71 years. Current life expectancy for Russian men is about 60 years.
Mr Putin also denied that the government was planning to increase regulation for the internet. Earlier this month, a top official of the FSB security service said services such as Skype and gmail should be banned because they could not be properly monitored, causing a flurry of speculation and criticism in the Russian blogosphere – the last place where discussion is free of government control.
Mr Putin said there were worries about the internet because it is controlled from "over the ocean", but added that it was impossible to ban it: "My personal opinion is that I don't think it is possible to limit anything."
Mr Putin was frequently interrupted by applause from MPs in a parliament that is heavily dominated by his United Russia party, which has said it wants him to stand rather than Mr Medvedev. If Mr Putin returns to office he could be in charge until 2024, as he will be allowed two further presidential terms, the length of which has recently been raised from four to six years.