Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used a meeting of his powerful political party to take center stage Thursday, casting himself as an indispensable leader even as the global financial meltdown threatens the achievements of his boom-time presidency.
At the first congress of his United Russia party since May, when Dmitry Medvedev succeeded him as Russia's president, Putin eclipsed his protege with a rousing speech to party faithful in a massive atrium off Red Square.
He acknowledged that Russia could not escape the effects of the international economic turmoil, but said it was well insulated by the riches accrued during his eight-year presidency. He also expressed confidence Russia would do more than just weather the storm.
"We can and must come out of the global instability stronger and more competitive," Putin said.
Amid speculation he could seek a return to the presidency soon, Putin sought to assure Russians that - far from plotting his political future - he is hard at work to shelter them from a crisis thrust upon Russia from the outside.
Once again, Putin cast the U.S. as the chief culprit in the woes of Russia and the world, saying that "cheap-money doping and mortgage troubles in the United States" brought on the crisis.
Putin asserted that Russia's economic troubles would not mean a retreat from the ambitious plans he has laid out for the coming dozen years.
"We are here today to say how, in the conditions of a world financial crisis, we are going to achieve the resolution of our strategic tasks," Putin said. "Our main, unconditional task is improving people's lives."
Putin came up with an array of tax breaks to bolster the economy and called for increased unemployment benefits. Still he said currency reserves accumulated during the oil boom "will ensure the stability of the Russian budget system for the coming years, with no dependence on world oil prices or traditional export goods."
The party congress came a day before the lower parliament house, dominated by United Russia, is expected to give its final approval to a Kremlin initiative to lengthen future presidential terms from four years to six. The move is widely seen as tailored to Putin, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third straight term but can run in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2012.
The push to enact the constitutional change just months after Medvedev's election has sparked speculation that it could be used to cut his term short and usher Putin back into the Kremlin much sooner. There has also been talk that Putin could step down as prime minister to avoid flak over the worsening economy.
The message from the United Russia congress was the opposite: that Putin is eagerly and competently doing his job as prime minister.
But with its broad scope and attention to detail, Putin's performance appeared aimed to portray him as the best hope for a country at a tough time. Putin's 45-minute speech dwarfed Medvedev's much shorter opening remarks. And while he spoke to an audience of party faithful, his seemed bent on reassuring everyday Russians that the nation - despite a severe credit crunch and falling ruble currency - is not headed for economic collapse.
"Putin's speech was aimed directly at the general public, and the content was much more in keeping with that of a state of the nation address" than Medvedev's own state of the nation address two weeks ago, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Moscow-based investment bank UralSib.
Medvedev's address - his first - focused more on geopolitics.
Weafer said Putin's upbeat speech was aimed to avert panic that could speed a more serious decline of Russia's economy.
"Russia's financial situation is still strong but the situation is deteriorating," Weafer said. "If this trend continues, there could be a major economic crisis possibly in the first quarter of next year, with job losses and other effects, and this could create political problems for the government."
Associated Press Writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.
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