MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged on Wednesday to station new missiles near Poland’s border in response to U.S. plans for an anti-missile system and proposed extending the presidential term to six years from four.
In an assertive first annual address to the nation, he defended Russia’s war with Georgia, appealed to nationalism and attacked Washington’s “selfish” foreign policy and “economic blunders” which he said caused the global financial crisis.
The harsh tone and repeated attacks on the United States the day after Democrat Barack Obama’s electoral victory surprised some observers who had expected a more liberal style and more detail on how Russia would tackle a financial crisis.
“To neutralize — if necessary — the (U.S.) anti-missile system, an Iskander missile system will be deployed in the Kaliningrad region,” Medvedev said, referring to a Russian enclave bordering European Union members Poland and Lithuania.
Russia would electronically jam the U.S. system, parts of which are due to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Moscow would scrap plans to stand down three Cold War-era nuclear missile regiments, the president said.
“Medvedev was very assertive in his delivery,” said Ronald Smith, chief strategist at Alfa Bank in Moscow. “(He) appeared to be staking out strong positions on various issues ahead of the entry of the new American presidential administration.”
Medvedev’s 85-minute address also included surprise proposals to extend the presidential term from four to six years, a move that may benefit his predecessor Vladimir Putin.
Putin, now a highly influential prime minister, listened attentively from the front row of the audience in the grand, marble-clad St George Hall of the Kremlin and nodded at times as Medvedev spoke.
Still Russia’s most popular politician, Putin stepped down in May after serving the maximum two consecutive terms allowed, but is free to return for another two terms when Medvedev’s four years in power end in 2012.
Medvedev also announced plans to lengthen legislators’ terms by a year and make it easier for small parties to win parliamentary representation. He did not say when the changes might take effect.
Small parties are among the most critical of the government and they were eliminated from the federal legislature under Putin’s eight-year rule.
One day after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election, Medvedev reserved his harshest criticism for the United States, blaming its “selfish” foreign policy for Russia’s brief war in August with Georgia, a U.S. ally.
“The conflict in the Caucasus was used as a pretext for sending NATO warships to the Black Sea and then for the forceful foisting on Europe of America’s anti-missile systems,” Medvedev said in his speech, broadcast live on television and radio.
The war with Georgia over the rebel region of South Ossetia was “among other things, the result of the arrogant course of the U.S. administration which hates criticism and prefers unilateral decisions,” he added.
Speaking to around 1,000 parliamentarians, top government officials, religious leaders and journalists, Medvedev linked the war in Georgia to the global financial crisis, saying they both began as localized events but took on broader significance.
“We will overcome the consequences of the world economic crisis and will come out of it even stronger than we were,” Medvedev, who took office in May, said to applause.
But the financial and Georgia crises also showed the need for fundamental reform of global institutions, he added.
“The lessons of the mistakes and crises of 2008 have proved to all responsible nations that the time has come to act, and it is necessary to radically reform the (international) political and economic system,” the president said.
Russia’s war with Georgia handed Moscow a quick military victory but serious defeat with international investors, who dumped Russian assets in a selling spree that made the stock market one of the world’s worst performing this year.
Medvedev’s inaugural speech coincided with Russian stock markets giving up most of the day’s big gains, though it was not immediately clear how much was due to international factors.
“This is speech designed very much for domestic audience... and the incoming U.S. administration. This was not a message aimed at investors or the business community,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Moscow bank Uralsib.
Editing by Ralph Boulton