4 Min Read
* Putin expected to trumpet the state of economy
* Speech will be watched for clues on government make-up
* Opposition expected to raise tough questions
By Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW, April 11 (Reuters) - Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin will play up his economic achievements on Wednesday in his last annual address to parliament as prime minister, a speech that will be scoured for clues on the makeup of his next administration.
The set-piece speech, which comes less than a month before Putin is sworn in on May 7, will offer the once and future Kremlin chief - a master of policy detail - a platform to set out a growth agenda for his six-year term.
But Putin, 59, will also face tough questions from opposition lawmakers emboldened by the largest protests of his 12-year-old rule over alleged ballot fraud in December's parliamentary election and last month's presidential vote.
While the focus of the annual report is on the economy, Putin - accused by the opposition of stifling political dissent - may also offer glimpses of his foreign policy priorities after a campaign coloured by his harsh criticism of the West.
Opponents and foreign governments are watching for signs Putin could expand the limited political reforms the Kremlin offered during a winter of protests or go the other way and crack down on perceived challenges to his grip on power.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on the eve of the address that Putin would outline "priority steps" and give "a detailed review of the state of the Russian economy and the social sphere".
Russia's economy is in a moderate recovery, but concerns are mounting that Putin's pre-election spending pledges will make the public finances of the world's largest energy producer more vulnerable than ever to an oil-price crash.
Putin has said he would name outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister in a job swap with the protege he helped into the Kremlin four years ago, but the shape of the next government is unclear.
Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister who nursed the budget through the 2008-09 crisis before quitting last year, has ruled out a return to government, saying he can't support its fiscal profligacy.
"With such dependency (on oil), we now always face the risk of an economic shock," Kudrin said in a newspaper interview on Tuesday after he launched a liberal policy task force last week that has been called a 'shadow government' by some commentators.
Peskov said that Putin's speech, which starts at noon in Moscow (0800 GMT) and is expected to last about 1-1/2 hours, will not propose a new government line-up.
But he will pass judgment on the performance of members of his government team, Peskov added. That could give some clarity, at least, regarding ministers on their way out.
"It is impossible to talk about the work of the cabinet as a whole without addressing individual sectors. It is difficult for me to say whether any names will be mentioned but areas of the economy will be mentioned for sure," Peskov said.
The lack of clarity over the makeup of the next government has sparked media speculation, in particular regarding the fate of Igor Sechin, a long-time Putin ally who as deputy premier now controls Russian energy policy.
Sechin has clashed in the past with Medvedev and sources say he could be moved either to the Interior Ministry or the Security Council - both 'power' structures that report directly to the president.
First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who oversees economic policy, is under pressure after admitting his wife had made millions of dollars in financial investments involving three of Russia's billionaire oligarchs.
Shuvalov has said his actions were legal and prosecutors have found no case to answer, but critics say that his actions represent a conflict of interests that may make his position in government untenable.
Putin, who has a personal aversion to cabinet reshuffles, is also under pressure to sack the most unpopular ministers in his government after voter criticism during the election campaign.