MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday wished Russians positive changes in the new year, hailing their solidarity and strength in the face of tough challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.
In a televised address broadcast just before midnight in each of Russia’s 11 time zones, Putin said the nation of nearly 146 million has faced “colossal challenges but has learned to live in those harsh conditions and solve difficult tasks thanks to our solidarity.”
“We have continued to battle the dangerous pandemic that has engulfed all continents and isn't retreating yet," Putin said. "The treacherous disease has claimed tens of thousands of lives. I would like to express words of sincere support to all those who lost their dear ones.”
Russia’s state coronavirus task force has registered a total of about 10.5 million confirmed infections and 308,860 deaths, but the state statistics agency that uses broader criteria in its tallying system has reported nearly 626,000 virus-linked deaths in Russia since the start of the pandemic.
Russia has seen a drop in contagion in recent weeks with new daily infections currently just above 20,000 after peaking at more than 40,000 in early November. The government so far has reported only about 100 infections with the new omicron variant, but it is bracing up for a new wave of contagion after the holidays.
Just 51% of Russians have been fully vaccinated, and the government has sought to speed up the uptake, claiming that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and other domestically designed shots offer a good protection from the omicron variant.
Authorities across Russia have restricted access to museums, theaters and concerts allowing only those who have been vaccinated or tested negative, but restaurants, clubs and cinemas have remained accessible for all in most regions. Moscow and other big cities planned to mark the New Year with fireworks and shopping malls were brimming with customers on a holiday buying spree.
“We are all united by the hope for positive changes in the future,” Putin said, adding that raising living standards is the main goal that would “help make Russia even stronger.”
Putin's address to the nation was broadcast hours after his phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden that focused on next month's talks to discuss Moscow's demand for Western security guarantees amid a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.
“We have firmly and consistently defended our national interests, the security of the country and its citizens,” Putin said.
Russian authorities have tightened controls over the domestic political scene this year, with Putin's main political foe Alexei Navalny handed a 2 1/2 year prison sentence, his organizations outlawed as “extremist” and scores of media outlets, civil society groups and activists branded “foreign agents,” a pejorative label implying additional government scrutiny.
Earlier this week, Russia’s court capped a year of crackdown by shutting the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights group in a move that drew an international outrage.
Putin, 69, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — is entitled to seek two more six-year terms and remain in power until 2036. He has said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024.
Follow all AP stories about the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.
Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press