Putin: Collapse of the Soviet Union was 'catastrophe of the century'

Vladimir Putin, Russia's President, has put his Western critics on notice that his country will develop democracy at its own pace and will not tolerate any outside interference, let alone a "velvet revolution".

Vladimir Putin, Russia's President, has put his Western critics on notice that his country will develop democracy at its own pace and will not tolerate any outside interference, let alone a "velvet revolution".

Delivering his annual state of the nation address yesterday, Mr Putin appeared to be directly addressing his critics, notably the United States, which has accused him of backsliding on democracy and being too authoritarian.

Speaking two days ahead of an expected verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon seen as a robber baron by some and as a political prisoner by others, Mr Putin was obviously trying to forestall any criticism later this week. Mr Khodorkovsky's case has become a PR nightmare for the Kremlin, which is accused of staging a show trial purportedly designed to punish the outspoken businessman for his opposition to the President.

Mr Putin therefore went out of his way to extol the virtues of democracy and talk up Russia's potential for foreign investment. He lamented, however, the collapse of the USSR in 1991, calling it "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe".

The President made it clear that democracy would be tailored to Russia's own needs and that Moscow would not be lectured to. "Russia ... will decide for itself the pace, terms and conditions of moving towards democracy," he told the country's ruling élite at the Kremlin. "We are a free nation and our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are."

There has been speculation in Russia that the country may be susceptible to a velvet revolution similar to those that in the past 18 months have toppled governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. But Mr Putin said the Kremlin would react strongly to any "illegal" attempts to subvert democracy. "Any unlawful methods of struggle ... for ethnic, religious and other interests contradict the principles of democracy. The state will react with legal, but tough, means."

In an apparent attempt to steal his opponents' clothes he dedicated a significant chunk of his speech to the importance of freedom of speech. Talking earnestly about the need for ordinary Russians to receive objective information, he called for guarantees that state television and radio would be "objective, free from any groups' influence and reflect the whole spectrum of opinion". He said: "Without liberty and democracy there can be no order, no stability and no sustainable economic policies."

The 45-minute speech was sporadically interrupted by enthusiastic applause and ended with a rousing rendition of the national anthem. Mr Putin, standing beneath an enormous gold-coloured double-headed eagle, Russia's national symbol, looked focused and unrattled. Ministers and loyalist deputies praised the speech, but opponents suggested he was being two-faced.

Dmitri Rogozin, leader of the Motherland nationalist party, said the speech had shown two Mr Putins. "One proclaims indisputable values," he said. "This concerns the economy and finances, as well as morals and so on. But there is another Putin - the one who heads the government and who has done nothing throughout all these years to make sure his own orders are implemented."

The speech

* "The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century. And for the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens found themselves outside the Russian Federation..."

* Russia "will decide for itself the pace, terms and conditions of moving towards democracy".

* "Any unlawful methods of struggle ... for ethnic, religious and other interests contradict the principles of democracy."

* "In past years we have taken several major steps in the fight against terror. But ... the threat is still very strong. We are taking very painful blows. Criminals are still committing dreadful acts with the aim of intimidating society."

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