Putin pledges economic recovery, defiant on sanctions
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In his year-end news conference on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said measures had been adopted to turn the country’s slowing economy around, while insisting his position on Ukraine had not shifted in the wake of Western sanctions.
Putin, facing the worst financial crisis of his rule, tried to dispel fears of an eventual economic collapse or political crisis as he addressed the massive annual news conference in Moscow.
The Russian leader said that the economic downturn would last two years at most and promised to support the poorest sectors of the population.
"It goes without saying that a way out of this situation is inevitable," he said in an attempt to ease fears after the rouble reached a record low this week, a 60-percent dive in value since the beginning of the year.
He added that efforts by the central bank and government – including a record hike of the key interest rate and spending billions to stabilise the national currency – have been "absolutely reasonable” even while admitting they could have come quicker.
Despite fears among Russians over declining wages and out-of-stock imports, Putin remains widely popular among voters. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday found that about 80 percent of people still support him.
Aside from the rouble’s recent nose dive, Putin has presided over a period of high oil prices and unprecedented economic prosperity.
In the past decade, Russians saw their living standards rise faster than at any other point in modern history, transforming many average citizens into car owners and globe-trotters for the first time ever.
Support for Putin also soared after he moved to seize the Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March.
On Thursday, the Russian president admitted that Western sanctions over Moscow's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine – where 4,700 people have died so far in fighting between Kiev's forces and pro-Moscow separatists – have contributed "25 to 30 percent" to the current economic situation.
But he made clear that his position on Ukraine has not changed, branding Kiev's military campaign against Russian-backed rebels in the east a "punitive operation".
Putin said the West is targeting Moscow not because of the annexation of Crimea and support for the rebels, but because of its "wish to survive as a nation, as a civilisation, as a state."
He avoided answering a question about Russian troop deployments in the neighbouring territory, which Moscow denies, saying that only "people whose conscience calls them" were involved in the Ukraine insurgency.
Western sanctions over Moscow's interference in eastern Ukraine are getting harsher.
The European Union voted in new measures on Thursday aimed at isolating Crimea, while US President Barack Obama is set to sign into law fresh Russia sanctions and an authorisation for weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that sanctions are "unavoidable" until Russia changes its position.
Although Putin chided NATO and Western countries in his remarks, he said Russia and its Western rivals were nevertheless “very close” to reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
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