Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticized by the U.S. for authoritarian tendencies, conceded Monday that his country faces challenges in developing as a free and democratic country.
He also stressed that Russia would decide for itself the best way to go about it.
In his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament, Putin said freedom, the rule of law and a respect for human rights must be the cornerstone of Russian society. The country had no future if it turns its back on democracy, he added.
The speech to lawmakers and top officials in the Kremlin's Marble Hall was broadcast live on state television.
The focus on democracy is not new. Putin's previous five state-of-the-nation addresses also referred to democracy, basic freedoms and the rule of law, as well as economic reforms, although many of the pledges in this regard are yet to become a reality.
Putin said Russia's place in the world will be defined by its strength and by its democratic and economic success.
But he cautioned that "democratic procedures should not develop at the expense of law and order, or stability which has been so hard to achieve, or the steady pursuit of the economic course we have taken."
"We will move forward taking into account our own internal circumstances but of course, based on the law and constitutional guarantees."
In a bid to assuage concerns of foreign investors, much of the focus of the 45-minute speech was on the economy, the business environment and what he called the overriding need to fight corruption.
Putin also addressed the "very serious" threat of terrorism, underlining the importance of improving law-enforcement agencies.
"Criminals continue to commit their terrible acts, trying to intimidate society, and we should muster our courage and continue our work to eradicate terror," he said. "Should we display weakness or laxity, losses will be immeasurably greater and they will bring about a nationwide catastrophe."
Putin did not refer to popular protests which have triggered democratic transitions in Georgia and Ukraine, or the recent toppling of the Kyrgyzstan government, but he did warn against upheavals in Russia.
"Any unlawful methods of struggle for ethnic, religious and other interests contradict the principles of democracy," he said. "The state will react to such attempts by with legal, but tough, means."
Putin also had some advice for former Soviet state and allies that have joined Western groupings.
"We hope the new members of NATO and the European Union on post-Soviet territory will prove in practice their respect for human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities," he said.
"Those who do not respect, observe or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."
Moscow has often complained that Russian-speaking minorities in areas that used to form part of the Soviet Union are subjected to discrimination.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev praised the speech and its promises on development and human rights, but expressed concern that there may be a shortage of qualified people to fulfill the official pledges.
Some Western officials and human rights groups say Putin has used the threat of terrorism as a pretext to tighten his hold on power, by centralizing authority in the presidency and infringing media freedoms.
The issues were raised both by President Bush during a meeting with Putin in Slovakia last February, and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Moscow last week.
Among previous state of the nation pledges was Putin's promise in 2003 to double gross domestic product within a decade. By last year's speech, he said that doubling could be achieved within eight years.
He also promised in 2004 to bring inflation down to three percent, although he did not provide a target date for that achievement. Economists here say the pledges will be difficult to meet.
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