Putin: Soviet collapse a 'tragedy of century'
MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin lamented the demise of the Soviet Union in some of his strongest language to date, saying in a nationally televised speech before parliament Monday that it was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
His statements on the collapse of the Soviet Union and its effects on Russians, at home and abroad, come as the country is awash in nostalgia just two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe — a conflict Russians call the "Great Patriotic War."
Putin, who served as a colonel in the KGB, has resurrected some communist symbols during his presidency, bringing back the music of the old Soviet anthem and the Soviet-style red banner as the military's flag.
In the 50-minute address at the Kremlin, Putin avoided mentioning the need to work more closely with other former Soviet republics — in contrast to previous addresses — and he made passing reference to the treatment of Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics.
"First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," Putin said. "As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory. The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself."
Russia regularly complains about discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities, particularly in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
There was no immediate reaction to Putin's speech by officials in the three Baltic countries, which have often stormy relations with Moscow. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said he disagreed with the statement.
"If I was in the place of the authors of the statement, I would say that the biggest event of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which completed the process of the emancipation of nations," Rotfeld said in Luxembourg.
Putin's popularity has been dented in the past year by widespread street protests over painful social security reforms and his unsuccessful attempts to head off a popular uprising in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
Critics also have slammed the Russian leader for reacting to terrorist attacks last year by pushing through legislation ending the election of independent lawmakers and the popular elections of provincial governors.
The Bush administration has been stepping up its criticism of Putin, albeit gingerly so as not to alienate a partner deemed vital in the global war on terrorism. President Bush said he raised the issue of Putin's commitment to democracy during meetings with the Russian leader in Slovakia in February. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern over democratic backsliding and the need for the rule of law during a high-profile visit to Russia last week.
The 60th anniversary Victory Day celebrations, to be held May 9 in Moscow, will be a major celebration for Russia. Dozens of heads of state are expected to attend, including Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Workers are frantically painting and scrubbing the city; red, star-studded posters hailing war veterans are plastered around the capital and vintage Soviet war films are being shown almost nightly on television.
Much of Putin's speech centered on assuaging the fears of investors who have been spooked by a series of contradictory and sometimes punitive legal and regulatory measures.
He said tax inspectors do not have the right to "terrorize business," and repeated a call for the time for challenging the results of past privatization deals to be cut to three years from the current 10. Foreign companies need clear "rules of the game" on which sectors of the economy are open to investment, Putin said. Russians should be encouraged to bring their undeclared earnings home rather than squirrel them away abroad, he said.
"That money must work in our country, in our economy, and not sit in offshore zones," Putin said.
Investors and analysts are closely watching how a Moscow court will rule as early as Wednesday in the criminal case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky — once Russia's richest man and now its most famous inmate. Many see the criminal trial and a parallel tax assault that has dismantled his Yukos oil empire as a Kremlin-instituted policy.
Some experts say Russia is already seeing economic growth slow as a result of Yukos, along with other cases, such as $1 billion tax bill that Anglo-Russian oil company TNK-BP now faces and antitrust authorities' decision to block a bid by Germany Siemens AG to acquire Russian power station builder Power Machines.
Liberal politician Irina Khakamada dismissed Putin's address as "an export product" marked by "liberal rhetoric and ritual statements addressed to the West."
"Here (in Russia) we react to the actions of the prosecutor general's office and the tax inspectors. This is what's real," said political analyst Yuri Korgunyuk.
Putin was to set off for Cairo on Tuesday and then continue on to Israel — his first visit to the Middle East as Russia's president. The last Kremlin chief to make a bilateral visit to Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1964 inaugurated the first stage in building the Aswan High Dam.