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13 Feb 04,, 04:52
Putin laments demise of Soviet Union

Associated Press

Moscow President Vladimir Putin used a campaign speech Thursday 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.

Mr. Putin, a former agent of the Soviet KGB spy agency, 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," Mr. Putin said in a nationally televised speech to about 300 campaign workers gathered 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Putin said:

"The Soviet Union [was] a very complicated page in the history of our people," adding "that train has left."

But on Thursday, 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," he said.

Across town, meanwhile, Putin challengers in the election next month refused to debate among themselves in a television program called for that purpose. The candidates said a debate was meaningless without Mr. Putin, who says he doesn't need the free television advertising.

At the taping of what was to be the first debate ahead of the March 14 vote, four of Mr. Putin's six challengers answered questions from the studio audience, but then rejected the host's appeal that they debate each other.

"Bring Vladimir Putin here and we will have a debate," independent liberal candidate Irina Khakamada said, winning applause from the audience.

Calling it pointless to debate with anyone but Mr. Putin, "my main competitor", 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.

Regardless of Mr. Putin's public declarations about campaign advertising, state-controlled television channels already lavish him with extensive coverage as on Thursday when state-run Rossiya showed his remarks live.

Addressing a packed auditorium at Moscow State University, Mr. Putin said: "The head of state should not engage in self-advertising."

"Nevertheless," he continued, "I am simply obliged before my voters and the entire country to account for what has been done during the past four years, and to tell people what I intend to do during the next four years."

Responding to a question after his state-of-the-nation-style speech, Mr. Putin said that the 1991 Soviet collapse which most Russians regret led to few gains and many problems for ordinary citizens.

Turning to global politics, Mr. Putin said that Russia must become a "full-fledged member of the world community" and assailed those in the West who still have a Cold War-era distrust of Russia. They "can't get out of the freezer," he said.

Mr. Putin reiterated his stated opposition to prolonging his time in office, limited to two terms. But he indicated he would choose a preferred successor, saying that the task of any top leader "is to propose to society a person he considers worthy to work further in this position."

Some Putin opponents had considered boycotting the presidential election, saying a fair vote was impossible in Russia today, and the refusal to debate in Thursday's program reflected the candidates' anger at the President's dominance of the campaign.

Some political analysts said, however, the public does not expect Mr. Putin to debate.

"They see the head of state as a monarch who shouldn't participate in discussions with those below him in the hierarchy," said Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Institute in Moscow said.

The Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe said the state-controlled media's parliamentary campaign coverage was slanted toward pro-Putin forces and accused the government of pressuring news media, to limit opposition views.

http://www.globeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20040212.wsovi0212/BNStory/Front/