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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April 2005, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Analysis: Putin's balancing act
By Malcom Haslett
BBC Eurasia analyst

In his annual state of the nation address on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his main priority was to make Russia a "free, democratic country".

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin said Russia should follow its own democratic path

But he also referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".

The Russian president's speech looked like a typical politician's attempt to be "all things to all people", to win sympathy from very diverse sections of opinion in Russia and abroad.

It will certainly be greeted warmly by large sections of the Russian people, particularly those who lament the days of the Soviet Union, when they felt they were part of a superpower second to none.

But it will raise new questions among foreign observers as to Mr Putin's commitment to any sort of democracy they would recognise as such.

Soviet nostalgia

For many Russian citizens the words "Soviet Union" may still conjure up something noble and glorious, which they feel proud to have been part of.

But for very many people in the world, including millions of Russians, the Soviet regime represented something corrupt, brutal and shameful.

They rejoiced at its downfall. In his address President Putin, it is true, did say the Soviet Union was now a thing of the past.

And he went on to say Russia should not retreat from democracy, but further develop it.

The question is: what sort of democracy has Mr Putin in mind?

Again, patriotic Russians will applaud Mr Putin's defiant statement that Russia will choose "its own path of democracy", without outside "interference".

Closely watched

Yet outside Russia such statements may only strengthen fears that Mr Putin intends to continue with what is seen abroad as, at best, a rather limited form of democracy.

With control of the media largely in state hands, the "taming" of the Duma and the judiciary, and the imprisonment of "disloyal" tycoons like former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky, foreign critics are paying close attention to his every move.

They will also have noted the Russian president's pledge to crack down on what he called "unlawful methods of struggle".

This suggests he would show little tolerance to the sort of popular street demonstrations which led to regime change in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Vladimir Putin currently faces a dual challenge.

At home his main rivals are now xenophobic nationalists who disapprove of any concessions to foreigners, and particularly the United States.

So he tries to counter their criticism by veering towards a nostalgic nationalism himself.

Appeasing critics

At the same time, with a verdict due this week in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Mr Putin knows he is being scrutinised very carefully abroad.

Mr Khodorkovsky's supporters argue the charges against him are politically motivated, designed as punishment for the businessman's support for opposition parties.

Mr Putin is trying to assure the world this is not so.

The big question is: can he give foreign investors the reassurance they need and at the same time appease the xenophobic domestic opposition?

It is a balancing act which is becoming ever harder to achieve.

See President Putin give his state of the nation speech

Putin deplores collapse of USSR
25 Apr 05 |  Europe
Putin keeps press guessing
26 Apr 05 |  Europe
Khodorkovsky: an oligarch undone
25 Apr 05 |  Business
Putin 'halts' privatisation probe
24 Mar 05 |  Business
Country profile: Russia
28 Mar 05 |  Country profiles


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