MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin used a campaign speech yesterday to declare the demise of the Soviet Union a "national tragedy on an enormous scale," in what appeared to be his strongest-ever lament of the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Putin, a former KGB agent, has praised aspects of the Soviet Union in the past but never so robustly nor in such an important political setting.
"The breakup of the Soviet Union is a national tragedy on an enormous scale," from which "only the elites and nationalists of the republics gained," Putin said in a nationally televised speech to about 300 campaign workers at Moscow State University.
The president's language was sure to send a chill through the 14 other former Soviet republics that have been independent from Moscow rule for more than a decade.
In the past and to audiences from the former republics, Putin has sought to ease fears about Russia having designs on rebuilding the old empire.
In September remarks after a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- the grouping of former Soviet republics -- Putin said:
"The Soviet Union [was] a very complicated page in the history of our people," adding, "that train has left."
But yesterday, he spoke in a much stronger tone, appearing to play to Russian nationalism.
"I think that ordinary citizens of the former Soviet Union and the post-Soviet space gained nothing from this. On the contrary, people have faced a huge number of problems," he said.
"Today we must look at the reality we live in. We cannot only look back and curse about this issue. We must look forward."
Across town, meanwhile, Putin's challengers in the election next month refused to debate among themselves in a television program scheduled for that purpose. The candidates said a debate was meaningless without Putin, who says he doesn't need the free television advertising.
At the taping of what was to be the first debate before the March 14 vote, four of Putin's six challengers answered questions from the studio audience, but then rejected the host's appeal to debate.
"Bring Vladimir Putin here and we will have a debate," independent liberal candidate Irina Khakamada said to applause.
Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov said that by ignoring the debates, "Putin is depriving the population of the right to choose."
Also at the taping were candidates Sergei Glazyev of the populist-nationalist Homeland Party and Oleg Malyshkin of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party.