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In remarks, Putin laments Soviet fall

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin lamented the demise of the Soviet Union in some of his strongest language to date, saying in a nationally televized speech yesterday that it was ''the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

In his annual address to parliament and top government officials, 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.

He spoke on the collapse of the Soviet Union and its effects on Russians 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. Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld of Poland 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.

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, albeit gingerly so as not to alienate a partner deemed vital in the war on terrorism. President Bush said he brought up Putin's commitment to democracy when they met in Slovakia in February.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern over moves away from democracy in 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, President Jacques Chirac of France, and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. 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.

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