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 on Monday that it was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
In his annual address to lawmakers, top government officials and political leaders, Putin also sought to reassure skittish investors about Russia’s investment climate – just two days before a ruling in the tax evasion and fraud trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
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 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, especially 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.
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 criticism of Putin – gingerly so as not to alienate a partner in the war on terror. President Bush said he raised the issue of Putin’s commitment to democracy during meetings in Slovakia in February.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern over democratic backsliding and the need for the rule of law during a visit to Russia last week.
The 60th anniversary Victory Day celebrations, scheduled to be held May 9 in Moscow, will be a major celebration for Russia.