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Putin Says Russia Needs To Focus On Falling Living Standards In Annual Address

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly at Moscow's Manezh exhibition center on March 1.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech that Russia needs to focus on raising the living standards of its citizens.

Speaking before hundreds of top officials and lawmakers in Moscow on March 1, Putin said Russia needed to make a technological breakthrough to set the foundation for future development.

He warned Russia risked "losing its sovereignty" if it failed to move forward economically.

Putin also said more should be done to tackle poverty, noting that 20 million Russians currently live below the official poverty line.

He also said that Russia must take steps to improve the health-care system.

Regarding the military, Putin said Russia was upgrading its infrastructure in the Arctic region to safeguard its interests.

The speech comes ahead of the March 18 presidential election that Putin is expected to win easily.

The address is one of three regularly scheduled national appearances Putin makes each year -- the others being a lavish question-and-answer session with the public and a stage-managed annual press conference.

It is the 14th time Putin has given the address, before an audience that traditionally includes both houses of the legislature, or Federal Assembly; government ministers; judges from the Constitutional and Supreme courts; leading regional officials; and other members of the political elite.

In the past, the address has normally lasted about one hour.

The constitutionally mandated address is normally given in December in the lavish St. George's hall in the Kremlin.

This year, however, it was relocated to the Manezh hall just off Red Square and repeatedly postponed, moves that observers say was intended to bolster Putin's reelection campaign.

"Even though the address is being given in the name of the president and not the candidate, no one can ban Putin from presenting his vision of the future," Moscow-based political scientist Vladimir Slatinov told RIA Novosti.

"Of course, Putin can't use his official post for his campaign, he can share his vision for the development of the country and the solution of key problems facing Russia."

"It is a clear public gesture intended to enliven the election campaign," Slatinov added.

According to TASS, the Manezh exhibition hall was selected as a venue because the number of invitees has been substantially increased and because it has large video monitors and other technology for infographics and multimedia segments.

Oleg Matveichev, a politics professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said this year's address will be "somewhat unusual."

"It will combine a review of the past year with a campaign program looking ahead several years," Matveichev told RIA Novosti. "It will definitely touch on all aspects of life and won't emphasize any one thing in particular."

On February 27, the liberal Yabloko party -- whose candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, is one of seven people running against Putin -- issued a statement saying, "the choice of the date for presenting the address and its transformation into essentially a campaign-platform declaration is a violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation."

Putin, 65, has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister since 2000. Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who has been barred from running in the election because of a felony conviction that observers denounce as politically motivated, has dubbed the election "the reappointment of Vladimir Putin" and has called on voters to stay away from the polls.

Putin has refused to participate in televised debates or other traditional public campaign events.

Analysts believe the Kremlin fears that a low turnout will undermine the appearance of the election's legitimacy. The government appears to be taking numerous measures to boost turnout, including moving the day of voting to March 18, the fourth anniversary of Russia's formal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Those events, while widely condemned by the international community, were welcomed among Putin's supporters in Russia.

In addition to the election, Putin's state-of-the-nation address also comes in the context of international sanctions imposed on Russia for its interference in Ukraine, tense relations with the United States, and a struggling economy.

Government statistics show that real incomes fell in 2017 for the fourth straight year. The government's economic program forecasts that the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line will be reduced from the current 13.8 percent to 11.2 percent by 2020. However, that figure is higher than the 10.7 percent posted in 2012.

With reporting by TASS, RIA Novosti, and Vedomosti