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.”
Poland played down the Russian plan. “We have been used to the fact that Russia growls every now and then,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said at a news conference in Warsaw. “I would not give too much meaning to this declaration.”
In Prague, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told Reuters the Russian deployment would worsen the atmosphere for dialogue. Lithuanian President Valdus Adamkus said in a statement the Russian plan was beyond comprehension.
Russia has said the missile shield is a threat to it’s own security although the U.S. has denied this -- a stance it reiterated on Wednesday.
“These are interceptors and they are designed to protect our European allies as well as the continental United States from an emerging ballistic missile threat from the Middle East,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
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.
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.
“This is being prepared so that Putin can return for 12 years, so two six-year terms,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Russian political analyst.
Medvedev said a longer term was needed to allow the head of state to meet challenges including economic and military reform and the creation of a stable democracy. A Kremlin aide said the change would not apply to the term Medvedev is serving now.
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.
Medvedev also announced plans to lengthen legislators’ terms by a year and make it easier for small parties now excluded from the federal legislature to win parliamentary representation.
CRITICISM OF UNITED STATES
One day after Obama won the U.S. presidential election, Medvedev reserved his harshest criticism for the United States, blaming its “selfish” foreign policy for triggering 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.
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.
Touching only briefly on the financial crisis, Medvedev said U.S. over-confidence led it to commit economic blunders and fail to coordinate anti-crisis measures with other states.
He said the crisis was not over yet but that Russia would emerge from it stronger than before.
Investors took little cheer from Medvedev’s address. It coincided with Russian stock markets giving up most of the day’s big gains, though European bourses also fell.
“This is a speech designed very much for a 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.
For highlights of Medvedev’s address, click on [nMEDVEDEV2]
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski, Denis Dyomkin and Aydar Buribaev in Moscow, Patrick Lannin in Riga, Jana Mlcochova in Prague, Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw and Andrew Gray in Washington; Editing by Ralph Boulton
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