Tuesday, April 26, 2005

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 yesterday that it was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

In his annual address to lawmakers, top government officials and political leaders, Mr. 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 about the collapse of the Soviet Union and its effects on Russians, at home and abroad, come amid a wave of 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.”

Mr. Putin, who served as a colonel in the KGB intelligence agency, 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, Mr. Putin avoided mentioning the need to work more closely with other former Soviet republics — in contrast to previous addresses — and 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,” Mr. 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 from officials in the three countries, which have often stormy relations with Moscow.

Mr. Putin’s popularity has been bruised 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 criticized 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 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 President 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 throughout the capital and vintage Soviet war films are being shown almost nightly on television.

Much of Mr. 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, Mr. Putin said, adding that Russians should be encouraged to bring their undeclared earnings home rather than stash them away abroad.

Investors and analysts are closely watching how a Moscow court will rule as early as tomorrow in the criminal case of 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 experiencing slowed growth as a result of Yukos, along with other cases, such as a $1 billion tax bill imposed on the Anglo-Russian oil company TNK-BP.

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