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Putin talks babies, avoids scraps with US in speech

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, May 10 (Reuters) President Vladimir Putin offered financial incentives to boost Russia's falling birthrate and called for a stronger army but, in a keynote speech, chose to ignore stinging criticism from Washington.

Media had expected Putin to focus on foreign policy in his hour-long Kremlin speech to the people that followed sharp criticism from the White House over his record on democracy.

In the end he took only a mild swipe at Washington, obliquely accusing it of hanging on to outdated prejudices.

''Not everyone in the world has been able to move on from the stereotypes of bloc thinking and prejudices which are a carry-over from the epoch of global controntation, though there have been fundamental changes in the world,'' he said.

US-Russian relations hit their coldest moment last week when US Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking in Vilnius, accused Moscow of backsliding on democracy and using its vast energy resources as a tool for ''intimidation and blackmail'' against its neighbours.

President George W. Bush, who will next meet Putin in St Petersburg in July at a G8 summit of leaders of the industrialised world, has now stepped in saying in a German newspaper that Russia is giving out ''mixed signals'' on democracy.

On Iran, Putin also sidestepped open criticism, making only a veiled warning to Washington not to take military action against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Putin said Russia stood ''unambiguously'' for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the world.

But, in an apparent reference to mounting tension between the United States and Iran though without mentioning either by name, he said: ''Methods of force rarely give the desired result and often their consequences are even more terrible than the original threat.'' Moscow finds itself at odds with the West in the UN Security Council over how to respond to Tehran's refusal to end uranium enrichment.

MORE BABIES PLEASE Putin, unchallenged at home and due to step down in 2008 after two terms in office, zeroed in instead on Russia's catastrophic demographic situation, saying the population of the country was falling by 700,000 people every year.

To wild applause from officials, he said a special programme would be set up in the 2007 state budget that would make 1,500 roubles monthly payouts to families for their first baby and double that sum for a second child.

''The problem of low birth rates cannot be resolved without a change in the attitude of our society towards the issue of family and family values,'' he said.

Deferring to another powerful pillar of the Russian establishment, just a day after the 61st anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by Soviet forces, Putin said Russia needed armed forces that were capable of responding to modern threats.

''We must not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union, and of the Cold War. We must not sacrifice the interests of socio-economic development to develop our military complex. That is a dead end.

''Our military and foreign policy doctrines should answer the most topical question: How can we fight not just against terror but against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.?'' Reuters SY GC1535

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