- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin began his second term yesterday by vowing to help Russia’s poor people and protect the nation’s “legitimate interests in the rapidly changing world.”

Mr. Putin directed most of his brief inaugural speech to his countrymen — saying his top priority would be improving their living standards — but he also touched on Russia’s changing international role.

“Together we have made our homeland an open country, a country prepared to cooperate on a wide and equal basis with other states, a country deepening its position on the international stage and capable of defending by peaceful means its legitimate interests in the rapidly changing world,” Mr. Putin told the audience of 1,700 guests in the gilded Andreyevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

Under Mr. Putin, 51, Russia has increased its partnership with its former Cold War foe, NATO, which expanded last month to within about 100 miles of Mr. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. Russia also has forged closer ties with the European Union, and is pushing for membership in the World Trade Organization. Moscow has linked up with the United States in the fight against terrorism, and moved to reassert some of the global influence it lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin used the occasion of his inauguration to refer to Russia as a “vast, great power” — a message he has emphasized repeatedly. But he noted his biggest goal is at home: making life easier for the millions of Russians still impoverished more than a decade after the Soviet system’s collapse. About one-fifth of Russia’s 144 million people live in poverty.

“Only free people in a free country can be successful: that is the basis for the strong economic growth of the country and its political stability,” Mr. Putin said.

Critics accuse Mr. Putin of stifling dissent and press freedom and reasserting the power of the security services. The two main elections held during his tenure — his own on March 14 and December’s parliamentary balloting — fell short of democratic standards, international observers said, dampening hopes raised four years ago when Mr. Putin’s inauguration marked Russia’s first democratic transfer of power.

Unlike four years ago, he has significant power in the form of a parliament dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party, a hand-picked Cabinet and his stronger international reputation.

The inaugural was full of pomp: a 30-gun salute, goose-stepping guards and Moscow streets emptied to allow Mr. Putin’s black Mercedes to reach the Kremlin.

In the past four years, Mr. Putin’s popularity has grown to a level of stardom, with his portrait sold in stores and a pop song extolling his discipline.

After his inauguration, the pro-presidential youth group Moving Together rallied thousands of young people in central Moscow in celebration.

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