UPDATE 2-Russian PM Putin promises higher wages before polls

* Promises state workers extra cash, bigger student grants

* Election trail kicks off with regional polls on March 13

(Adds more quotes, context, colour)

By Darya Korsunskaya

BRYANSK, Russia, March 4 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin promised extra cash to state workers and students on
Friday, but stopped short of bigger vote-winning gestures before
a campaign run culminating in Russia’s 2012 presidential poll.

Russia holds regional elections on March 13, followed by
parliamentary polls in December and the presidential vote next
March, in which many expect Putin to return to the Kremlin.

“One of the biggest problems is rising food prices,” Putin
told a meeting of his ruling United Russia party in Bryansk, a
provincial capital 330 km (205 miles) southwest of Moscow.

“We cannot and will not turn our back on social obligations,
leave people alone with their problems and the promise of a
flourishing tomorrow,” he said at the meeting, which mixed
elements of an economic conference and an election campaign.

Wearing a dark suit and tie, Putin stood before big screens
showing a waving Russian tricolour and shifting images of
onion-domed churches, tree-lined lakes and fields full of crops.

He said state workers would get an additional wage increase
in the autumn, while student grants would likely be raised by
more than the previously promised 9 percent.

But given that high oil prices could earn an extra 1.5
trillion roubles ($53 billion) for Russia’s budget this year,
the spending promises so far seem relatively modest in a sign
that Putin may be heeding experts’ warnings that spending too
much would only fuel inflation – the top concern of voters.

President during an oil-fuelled boom in 2000-2008, Putin has
hinted he will return to the Kremlin next year or endorse his
protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, for another term.

Analysts say the popular Putin, 58, will remain Russia’s
paramount leader either way. He has been laying economic plans
through at least 2020 and has given no indication he plans to
cede control of the country’s reins any time soon.

RISING INFLATION

But rising prices threaten to bolster opponents of United
Russia, the long dominant party he uses as both a source of
support and an instrument of power, in regional elections this
month and December voting for the State Duma.

Consumer prices rose 3.2 percent in the first two months of
the year alone, data showed on Friday, making it tough for the
government to meet its 2011 inflation target of 6-7 percent.

United Russia’s popularity fell to its lowest point in more
than a year in January, according to a survey conducted by the
independent polling agency Levada-Centre.

The regional party conference in Bryansk was the latest in a
series Putin has held across the sprawling nation of 142 million
people over the past year.

After a lengthy opening address, Putin held court for
several more hours, listening to reports from several provinces
and commenting in detail in response.

His speech included sops for interest groups ranging from
weapons makers — told of a costly rearmament programme he said
would “breathe new life” into the industry — to Russians who
have spent their savings on apartments that were never built.

Appealing to public anger over Russia’s endemic corruption,
Putin said United Russia candidates must be “orderly,
professional and effective” and suggested they should declare
not only their income, as is required, but also their spending.

Putin said United Russia, which holds more than two-thirds
of the 450 seats in the current State Duma, would select its
candidates for the parliamentary elections at a national party
conference in September.
(Writing by Toni Vorobyova and Steve Gutterman; Editing by
Elizabeth Fullerton)