Putin Says Economic Reform His Top Priority

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By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that reforming the economy is his top priority.

Putin won his third term in office in March amid large-scale protests in major Russian cities, fueled by reported election fraud at a parliamentary vote and fatigue with his 12-year presence in power.

[Putin: Syrian People Must Decide Their Leadership.]

He stepped down as president in 2008 because he could not constitutionally be elected for a third consecutive term, but he became prime minister and was still considered the country's most influential man.

In an address to investors and heads of global corporations, Putin confirmed his commitment to economic reforms that should make Russia a more attractive business destination.

"We have mapped out an entire program of large-scale reform, and it has received broad public support," he said. "I see its fulfillment as the main goal of my tenure as president."

Putin admitted that the government has failed to diversify Russia's economy away from its reliance on crude oil, but pledged to tackle the issue. He said the government will soon be drafting its budgets in a way that Russia's main expenditures and investment projects will not rely on taxes expected to come in from oil companies enjoying high oil prices.

In a move cheered by businessmen and investors, Putin on Thursday appointed a presidential ombudsman vested with special powers to defend the rights of company owners and directors.

[Read: Putin Flexes Muscles, Turns to 'Gunboat Diplomacy' in Syria.]

The new ombudsman, Boris Titov, will have powers to represent owners and directors in courts and suspend official rulings which could be viewed as hampering their rights. Titov had previously served as a chairman of the well-respected business lobby Delovaya Rossiya.

Russian authorities have admitted that a poor investment climate is scaring investors away and hope Titov's appointment will improve the country's profile and reputation.

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