President Vladimir Putin urged lawmakers Friday to pass a newly-drafted bill that would grant an amnesty to white-collar criminals in a bid to improve Russia's frigid business climate at a time of slowing growth.
In a keynote address to the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin also unveiled a $13.7-billion stimulus package designed to help Russia spend its way out of an economic slump that threatens to reach recession by the end of the year.
Winning applause from the international business leaders packed into the hall, Putin said the amnesty was necessary to improve people's trust in how the government works.
But human rights leaders expressed concern that the measure was too limited because it would not cover some of the biggest critics of Putin who have been jailed for disputed businesses crimes.
"Work on the draft bill on an amnesty has been completed by the business community and deputies of the State Duma. I can agree with this draft, and I ask the State Duma to review it and support it," said Putin.
"I expect that this will be done quickly, before the summer recess," which starts July 5, he added.
Putin said the new law would cover only those who committed business-related crimes for the first time and not be applied to repeat offenders.
The announcement suggests that the measure would not touch Russia's jailed former oil tycoon and repeated Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- now in prison serving his second consecutive sentence for white collar crimes he disputes.
Khodorkovsky's attorney Vadim Klyuvgant said the bill backed by Putin was so weak that it looked like the government was only trying to score public relations points instead of actually changing the legislation.
"There are many things that happen today that are done for little more than appearance," Klyuvgant told the Interfax news agency.
"If this is being done for appearance, it should not be called an amnesty," Klyuvgant said.
Khodorkovsky was convicted for a second time on charges related to how he used his Yukos oil company empire in December 2010 and is not due to be released until 2014.
Putin's announcement comes as something of a surprise because he had said as recently as April that the proposed amnesty legislation was too broad and still in need of a lot of work.
The amnesty has been heavily backed by Russia's business community as well as human rights figures who argue that bureaucrats use complex laws to hound entrepreneurs and jail those who refuse to pay heavy bribes.
Yet some of Russia's most respected rights leaders questioned Putin's motives, pointing out that the Russian leader's definition of an amnesty appeared to be overly strict.
"What kind of amnesty is this that does not cover anyone," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Interfax reported.
Putin's announcement came during a three-day business forum in his native city that the Russian leader had hoped to use to build investor trust in his country.
Russia's economy has suffered this year from falling production rates and accelerated inflation that have made it difficult for the central bank to cut interest rates to achieve growth.
Putin said up to 450 billion rubles ($13.7 billion,10.5 billion euros) could be used from a sovereign wealth fund for infrastructure projects, including a high speed railway between Moscow and the Volga city of Kazan.
He added that a fresh approach to the economy was needed because Russia could not longer rely on high prices for its energy exports to achieve growth.
"For many years we lived in a situation of a rapid, almost incessant rise in the price of our main export goods," Putin told the forum.
"This factor no longer exists," Putin stressed.
Some analysts applauded Putin's idea of stimulus spending. "Russia's investment-to-GDP ratio is extremely low by emerging market standards," Capital Economics said in a research note.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]