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In state of nation speech, Putin vows to improve Russians' lot

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin promised Russians affordable housing, education and health care and shrugged off allegations of authoritarianism yesterday in the first state of the nation address of his new term.

Putin, who was overwhelmingly reelected in March, also said Russia could double its gross domestic product faster than earlier planned.

He said some foreign nations were trying to tarnish Russia's reputation by accusing the Kremlin of an authoritarian streak. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has warned authoritarianism is ''creeping back" into Russian society, and other US officials have expressed concerns about press freedom.

''Sometimes they deliberately interpret the strengthening of our state as authoritarianism," Putin said in his speech, without naming any specific country.

He said Russia would adhere to democratic values, but issued a chilling criticism of nongovernmental organizations, saying many of them were more interested in getting funding from abroad or corporate sponsors than in defending the interests of the people.

''They cannot bite the hand that feeds them," Putin said in an apparent reference to human rights groups funded by organizations like jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation.

The nearly hourlong speech was Putin's fifth state of the union address and the first since his reelection to a second, four-year term.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leading liberal lawmaker, said that Putin's criticism of Russian nongovernmental organizations sent a bad signal.

''That sounded like a veiled threat," Ryzhkov told reporters. ''Does it mean that any alternative, any opposition must be excluded?"

Putin has been riding a wave of strong economic growth that began after Russia's 1998 financial disaster and largely has been driven by high world prices for oil.

But Russia faces challenges in spreading the wealth beyond a thin layer of the population.

In his speech, Putin said that about 30 million of Russia's 144 million people live below the poverty line, about $75 a month, adding that stable growth was necessary to cope with the problem.

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