Putin promises higher wages before polls

March 6, 2011 - 0:0

BRYANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised extra cash to state workers and students on Friday, but stopped short of bigger vote-winning gestures before a campaign run culminating in Russia's 2012 presidential poll. Russia holds regional elections on March 13, followed by parliamentary polls in December and the presidential vote next March, in which many expect Putin to return to the Kremlin. ""One of the biggest problems is rising food prices,"" Putin told a meeting of his ruling United Russia party in Bryansk, a provincial capital 330 km (205 miles) southwest of Moscow. ""We cannot and will not turn our back on social obligations, leave people alone with their problems and the promise of a flourishing tomorrow,"" he said at the meeting, which mixed elements of an economic conference and an election campaign. Wearing a dark suit and tie, Putin stood before big screens showing a waving Russian tricolour and shifting images of onion-domed churches, tree-lined lakes and fields full of crops. He said state workers would get an additional wage increase in the autumn, while student grants would likely be raised by more than the previously promised 9 percent. But given that high oil prices could earn an extra 1.5 trillion roubles (32 billion pounds) for Russia's budget this year, the spending promises so far seem relatively modest in a sign that Putin may be heeding experts' warnings that spending too much would only fuel inflation - the top concern of voters. President during an oil-fuelled boom in 2000-2008, Putin has hinted he will return to the Kremlin next year or endorse his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, for another term. ----Rising inflation

But rising prices threaten to bolster opponents of United Russia, the long dominant party he uses as both a source of support and an instrument of power, in regional elections this month and December voting for the State Duma. Consumer prices rose 3.2 percent in the first two months of the year alone, data showed on Friday, making it tough for the government to meet its 2011 inflation target of 6-7 percent. United Russia's popularity fell to its lowest point in more than a year in January, according to a survey conducted by the independent polling agency Levada-Centre. The regional party conference in Bryansk was the latest in a series Putin has held across the sprawling nation of 142 million people over the past year. After a lengthy opening address, Putin held court for several more hours, listening to reports from several provinces and commenting in detail in response. His speech included sops for interest groups ranging from weapons makers -- told of a costly rearmament program he said would ""breathe new life"" into the industry -- to Russians who have spent their savings on apartments that were never built. Appealing to public anger over Russia's endemic corruption, Putin said United Russia candidates must be ""orderly, professional and effective"" and suggested they should declare not only their income, as is required, but also their spending.