President Vladimir Putin celebrated a national holiday marking Russia's independence with an elaborate Kremlin awards ceremony Sunday.
Putin decorated artists, archaeologists and scientists with state awards brought to him by square-jawed, goose-stepping guards in gilded ceremonial dress. In a televised speech marking the Day of Russia, he said the country's constitution is "one of the most democratic in the world" and gives first priority to personal rights and freedoms.
"The Day of Russia means for us the inseparable unity of such values as democracy, statehood and patriotism," Putin told the laureates and the government ministers, religious leaders and other guests at the reception, in remarks broadcast on state-run Channel One television.
Critics at home and abroad accuse Putin of backsliding on democracy and suppressing dissent, and liberals held a demonstration Sunday in support of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others who, organizers claim, are political prisoners.
Formerly known as Independence Day, the holiday marks the Russian parliament's June 12, 1990, declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who led Russia's independence drive and was elected president on the same day in 1991, created the holiday 12 years ago.
But Russia's independence meant the breakup of the Soviet Union - an event most Russians regret and Putin has called an enormous national tragedy. The holiday was renamed the Day of Russia in 2002 and transformed into a celebration of Russia itself and the unity - however fragile - of the huge, ethnically diverse country.
Based in London, we are an informal group dedicated to supporting democracy and human rights throughout
the former Soviet Union. Our aims are:
Informing the public about issues in this area that receive little coverage in the Western media.
Staging peaceful demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns in support of specific causes.
Supporting and publicising nonviolent pro-democracy groups throughout the region.
Encouraging European and American involvement.
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