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RUSSIA

Softer Speech Before a Tougher Parade

President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday warned against disregard for international law and "irresponsible ambitions" that lead to conflicts, as he presided over the Victory Day parade, which showcased military hardware for the first time since the Soviet collapse.

Medvedev adopted a noticeably more subdued tone for his speech than his predecessor and mentor, Vladimir Putin, who during last year's festivities took a swipe at Estonia and indirectly compared the United States' "claims for global pre-eminence" with those of Nazi Germany.

Yet, in line with the Kremlin's assertive rhetoric, Medvedev declared that disregard for the interests of various people and continents led to wars.

"We must treat very seriously any attempt to sow racial or religious enmity, foment the ideology of terror and extremism, meddle in other states' affairs and, especially, any attempt to redraw borders," Medvedev said in his first major public speech since being sworn into office on Wednesday.

Putin, who took over as prime minister on Thursday, stood next to Medvedev on a viewing platform in front of Lenin's mausoleum. He did not speak but received prominent coverage on television. The Kremlin has repeatedly criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Western recognition of Kosovo's independence as violations of international law.

Moments after Medvedev's speech commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, dozens of combat vehicles, including giant Topol nuclear-missile launchers, multiple-launch rocket systems and T-90 tanks, rolled over the cobblestones of Red Square. A supersonic bomber and fighter jets streaked through the blue sky.

"Our Ground Forces and Navy are gaining strength. They are becoming stronger just like Russia itself," Medvedev told an invited crowd of war veterans, government officials and foreign diplomats.

The last parade demonstrating military hardware on this scale was in 1990, a year before the Soviet collapse.

Putin has said the show of military might was not saber-rattling but "a demonstration of our growing potential in the area of defense."

Veterans, with rows of medals across their chests, said they were happy to see the hardware back on Red Square.

"I am proud to live in Russia and proud to be here. ... This is the might of our motherland," said former pilot Vitaly Popkov, 86, sitting in a wheelchair, a heap of red carnations on his lap and two Hero of the Soviet Union medals pinned to his chest.

"This weaponry is dear to my heart. If we had had such planes at the start of the war, we wouldn't have had such a shameful retreat," he said.

A Moscow school has been named after Popkov, who fought in 117 air battles during the war, and a bust in his honor has been erected in the city center, he said.

Foreign diplomats said the parade and the exhibition of military power could be interpreted in various ways but that they primarily saw it as a tribute to the sacrifices made by millions of Russians during the war. "I prefer to see this as a sign of an enormous effort of the Soviet people during the war when we were allies," Norwegian Ambassador Еyvind Nordsletten said.

Enver Halilovic, ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who took frequent pictures of the parade, said he interpreted it as a demonstration of the country's capabilities to resist armed conflicts in the future and its sentiments toward the past.

Military analysts have been more skeptical, saying the army still needs far-reaching upgrades and reforms. Military spending has shot up in recent years, but most of the combat vehicles demonstrated at the parade were designed in the 1980s and slightly modernized.

Problems such as widespread bullying and a lack of modern-day basic equipment and housing for underpaid soldiers have tainted the army's image. War veterans themselves eke out a living on tiny pensions. But at Friday's parade, they chose not to complain. Dmitry Mikhailik, 87, who finished the war in KЪnigsberg, now Kaliningrad, and heads the veterans council at the Emergency Situations Ministry, described his life as comfortable, noting that he received a holiday bonus of 15,000 rubles ($600) from the ministry earlier this month and 10,000 rubles last year. Popkov, when asked what he hoped Medvedev's government would do for him, said more "attention from our people" would be the most precious gift.

The decorated veterans were among a select group of guests seated in viewing stands next to the mausoleum. The entire Red Square and adjacent streets and metro stations were sealed off by the police.

As is tradition, the guests stood up at the beginning of the parade when several soldiers carried out a Russian flag and the Victory Banner. They stood up again when an orchestra on the square played the national anthem. Several uniformed guests saluted.

Standing in an open-top ZiL limousine, Vladimir Bakin, commander of the Moscow Military District, led the parade, while Acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, in a second ZiL, inspected the troops. The parade started with a procession of cadet drummers, some as young as 14, and soldiers wearing Soviet-era uniform. They were followed by tight formations of tank crews, infantrymen, sailors and pilots, goose-stepping across the cobblestones, and the imposing procession of military equipment. Toward the end of the parade, Mi-8 helicopters carrying giant flags thundered overhead, followed by a huge An-124 cargo plane, a Tu-160 supersonic bomber and a rhombus formation of fighter jets, among other planes.

City Hall has allocated more than $40 million for road repairs in the wake of the festivities.

After the parade, Medvedev hosted a champagne reception at the Kremlin for veterans.

Medvedev has also sent out congratulatory telegrams to the leaders of other former Soviet republics. In his note to Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, Medvedev warned him against any attempt to justify the Nazi crimes and "question the liberating mission of the Soviet Army," the Kremlin said. Many in Ukraine sided with Nazi Germany during the war, and Ukrainian veterans who fought against the Soviets have been recognized and praised under Yushchenko.

Putin, for his part, sent out congratulations to the prime ministers of the same countries, and in his telegram to Tbilisi he wished peace and well-being to the Georgian people. Relations with Georgia recently sank to a new low after Moscow increased the number of peacekeepers in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia, sparking fears of an armed conflict.

(The Moscow Times 12.v.08)

 
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