Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, preparing for a return to the Kremlin, urged Europe on Thursday to deal resolutely with its sovereign debt crisis and said Moscow was better prepared to cope than it was before the global crash of 2008.
In his first speech to investors since announcing a comeback as president, Putin also said he would stick to a responsible fiscal course and seek foreign investment to drive Russia's "new industrialization."
Putin said the greatest cause for concern was the euro-zone debt crisis, and the failure of European leaders to contain the rising debt burden that their countries face.
"Now is not the time to talk," he said. "It is the time to take clear, well thought-out measures to avert those negative processes that experts are starting to call the second wave of the crisis."
Exuding confidence, Putin said there would be no upheaval in Russia after the March 2012 presidential election. He is almost certain to win the vote after announcing last month that he would swap roles with President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Changes are undoubtedly needed and they will happen. But it will be an evolutionary path. We do not need great upheaval — we need a great Russia," he told the conference, organized by state-controlled bank VTB.
BETTER THAN 2008
Putin, who turns 59 on Friday, said Russia was ready to handle any fallout resulting from the slowdown in global growth and debt problems faced by the developed economies of the West.
"I will say straight away that Russia is better prepared than it was in 2008," Putin said. "We have built up serious experience, a reserve of durability — in the economy and in the financial sector."
Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina warned earlier, however, that the economy could contract by 1.5-2 percent should oil prices fall to $60 per barrel, compared to current growth rates of around 4 percent.
Putin sought to reassure investors concerned by the ousting of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a fiscal hawk who resigned after 11 years in office after saying the public finances were becoming overly dependent on high oil prices.
Kudrin's departure came as financial turmoil drives capital flight from Russia, expected by officials to reach $50 billion this year. Stocks recently hit their lowest since May 2010 and the ruble is close to its August 2009 lows despite dollar-selling by the central bank to support the currency.
Putin said that Russia had sufficient funds to keep the exchange rate of the ruble under control.
"We have half a trillion dollars in reserves," Putin said. "Their volume is sufficient to control the situation in the foreign currency market." The reserves fell by $9 billion in the latest week to $517 billion, central bank figures showed.
Kudrin, who was cut from the speaker roster just before the conference, would remain on Putin's team even after he was ordered by Medvedev to resign.
"He is one of the best specialists in Russia and the world," said Putin.
His comments provided at least some comfort to investors whose Russia holdings have taken a beating in the two-month-old global markets sell-off.
"It leaves Russia in a state of limbo, but it is not like, say, the Greek finance minister leaving," said Jacob Grapengiesser of East Capital, a Russia-focused fund manager that runs over 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in assets.
"Expectations of Russia are extremely low -- it has a 40 percent discount to emerging markets. That's a lot of room for positive upside," said Nadya Wells, vice-president of Capital International, which manages 95 billion euros ($126 billion).
Putin said maintaining fiscal discipline and low public debt would
remain government priorities, and promised a balanced budget by 2015.
The budget could yet post a surplus next year if oil prices turn out to be higher than the "conservative" estimates in the government's fiscal plans.
"Our strategic goal is diversification of the economy. And to change its structure we need to open the way for thousands of new projects and business ideas," Putin said. "For that we need investment, both direct and portfolio. This should become the main resource for the new industrialization of Russia."
Russia should, in the next few years, raise the share of capital investment in the economy to 25 percent of GDP, Putin said. Investment is now around 20 percent of GDP, less than half the level in faster-growing China.
Putin also said a deal for Russia to join the World Trade Organization was within in reach, but urged Europe and the United States to put pressure on Georgia, with which Russia fought a five-day war in 2008, to make Russia's entry happen.
"I have a question: do our main partners in Europe and the United States want Russia to become a member of the WTO or not?" Putin said in response to a question from the floor.
"You don't need to hide behind the issues of the Georgians. If they want, then they can accomplish this very fast, especially with the compromises we have already reached."
Russia's economy is by far the largest outside the 153-member WTO and Russia wants to complete its entry into the body this year after 18 years of negotiations.
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