President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused Russia's enemies of seeking to carve the country up and destroy its economy to punish it for growing strong, in an annual state of the union speech that seemed to outdo even Putin’s own recent strident nationalism.
Speaking in an ornate hall packed with dignitaries, Putin trumpeted Russia’s annexation earlier this year of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in a speech that showed no sign of turning back from policies that have brought his country to a level of intense confrontation with the West unseen since the Cold War.
The same day he spoke, however, a damning indictment of Putin’s human rights record and a deadly attack on police threatened to steal the spotlight.
Making his first visit to Russia in nearly a decade, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth accused Putin of leading the country toward a “slide into autocracy.”
Roth said oppression of the media, rights advocacy groups and the gay community has rendered the human rights landscape in Russia “virtually unrecognizable” since his last visit in 2005. Moscow has adopted a ban on what it calls pro-gay “propaganda,” which has coincided with a rise in vigilante violence against gay Russians, Roth added.
Also Thursday, Chechen fighters attacked a traffic post and media offices in the restive city of Grozny. Five police were killed in the attack, which was seen as an affront to Putin, who has made crushing the separatist insurgency in the Caucasus a hallmark of his domestic security policy.
Putin is also under pressure over the turbulent Russian economy, with Western sanctions on Russia's financial system and the falling price of energy exports sending the ruble currency into a tailspin. Moscow this week acknowledged for the first time that the country was headed for recession. As Putin spoke, the ruble — which fell to a 16-year low on Monday before briefly rebounding — sank once again.
Putin said that Western sanctions were designed to destroy Russia, and that they would have been imposed even without Russia’s meddling in Ukraine. "I am certain that if all this did not take place ... they would come up with another reason to contain Russia's growing capabilities," he said. "Whenever anyone thinks Russia has become strong, they resort to this instrument."
But his remarks on the economy were overshadowed by his aggressive nationalistic posture. Russia's "enemies of yesterday" wished on it the same fate as Yugoslavia’s in the 1990s, he said. "There is no doubt they would have loved to see the Yugoslavia scenario of collapse and dismemberment for us — with all the tragic consequences it would have for the peoples of Russia. This has not happened. We did not allow it.”
While Putin's domestic popularity ratings are still high, 5,000 people recently protested in Moscow against government spending cuts prompted by the economic downturn. Putin has not yet articulated a plan to pull the $1.4 trillion Russian economy out of crisis.
"The greatest danger for the president is the economy, under the double pressure of sanctions and falling oil prices," commentator Kirill Rogov wrote in the business daily Vedomosti.
Putin, 62, has been in power for 14 years and owes much of his popularity to Russia’s relative stability under his rule compared to the chaos of the 1990s, when hyperinflation nearly destroyed the economy.
Al Jazeera and wire services