Medvedev Courts Farmers and War Veterans

ReutersMedvedev visiting a World War II memorial on Mamayev Hill in Volgograd on Saturday, the 65th anniversary of a battle that was a turning point in the war.
Presidential front-runner Dmitry Medvedev hit the campaign trail over the weekend with a promise to continue subsidies for farmers amid Russia's drive to join the World Trade Organization.

"As far as the WTO is concerned, we are working on this issue. But we will offer adequate state support for the development of the agricultural sector," Medvedev said during a visit to Volgograd, the site of one of the biggest World War II battles, known by its Soviet-era name of Stalingrad.

Agriculture and the WTO are key battlefields for liberal- and conservative-minded politicians. Liberals believe sticking to tough WTO rules will boost efficiency and competitiveness in farming, while conservatives say it could kill the sector.

Medvedev's visit to Volgograd coincided with the 65th anniversary of the Stalingrad battle, a turning point of World War II in which the Red Army broke the backbone of the Nazi military machine.

Medvedev, who with President Vladimir Putin's support is widely expected to win the March 2 election, met war veterans and promised them state support.

"The state will continue to raise the veterans' pensions and take care of medical help and recreation for you," he told them.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, visited Volgograd on the day when presidential campaigning officially kicked off. Medvedev has said he will not take part in campaigning events like rallies or debates, citing a busy schedule in the Cabinet. His regional tours are arranged as business trips.

Medvedev, 42, stuck to this carefully crafted image in Volgograd. "Unemployment fell by about 5 percent. Many positive tendencies are becoming evident, and we can say that the republic is developing," he said, answering a question from reporters about Chechnya.


Ria-Novosti / AP
Medvedev raising a vodka toast to World War II veterans on Saturday in a tent set up on Volgograd's Mamayev Hill.
As during other recent appearances, Medvedev, wearing a blue blazer and black roll-neck shirt, made no major policy statements.

This format of his visits, lavishly covered by media, allows Medvedev to bypass strict limitations on media appearances by candidates, something his opponents say is unfair. The other presidential candidates are Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and independent Andrei Bogdanov.

Medvedev visited a ski resort near Sochi on Sunday.

On Friday, he promised that the government would plow more than 2 trillion rubles ($81 billion) into improving the education system over the next two years. "We could not dream of this just a few years ago," said Medvedev, seated next to Putin at a tsarist-era palace in the old Cossack capital of Novocherkassk, in the Rostov region.

Friday's meeting was to discuss public education, one of the four national projects that Medvedev oversees in the Cabinet. Officials at the meeting said schools were already benefiting from higher investment thanks to a national economic boom powered by exports of oil and gas.

"It was not too long ago that only 10 percent of children went to schools with modern equipment," Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko said. "Now the figure is 30 percent and we intend to take it to 70 percent by 2010."

Putin said improving education would result in benefits all around.

"The main thing is improving the competitiveness of our economy," he said.

Medvedev used the meeting to trumpet a record birth rate for 2007. "I am happy to say that, according to the latest report by the State Statistics Service, last year we had the biggest number of births in 25 years, since the Soviet days," he said, without giving a figure.

"Let's not stop at this achievement," Putin said.