MOSCOW Russia's President Vladimir Putin praised the country's Olympic preparations, which have been marred by allegations of wide-spread corruption, as a major boost for the economy at times of crisis.
Putin has staked a great deal of personal and political prestige on the Games and hopes they will showcase Russia's modern face to the world and help its weakening economy.
"It is fully justified to say that the Olympic project, the Olympic construction work as a whole, was one of the most significant anti-crisis measure in the country," Putin said in comments to state television broadcaster, Rossiya 24, aired on Sunday.
He said about 300 firms from all around Russia were engaged in preparations for the Games - the first Winter Olympics ever to be held by Russia - and that the project has added 560,000 extra jobs.
His comments were part of the broadcaster's program praising the preparations and the Games themselves as an exercise in national unity and a massive boost for Russian national pride two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Many Russians yearn for the international clout enjoyed by the Soviet Union and feel there is too much criticism and not enough respect abroad for their homeland.
But Kremlin critics say Putin has used the large-scale construction works in Sochi mainly to grant state contracts to his political allies and that corruption has been widespread.
The Games in Sochi, a Black Sea resort where Putin often spends his holidays, are also the most expensive Olympics ever with price tag of more than $50 billion.
Putin says there is no evidence of major corruption in Sochi but a recent survey by independent pollster Levada showed 47 percent of Russians believe the cost of the Games has soared because funds have been embezzled or mismanaged.
Security concerns as well as criticism from the West and rights groups over Russia's treatment of gays, environmental damage in Sochi and ill-treatment of migrant workers there have also clouded the run-up to the Games.
Ratings agency Moody's said the Games were unlikely to give the Russian economy a big boost.
In a blow to Putin, Moscow in November slashed long-term growth forecasts, acknowledging for the first time its economy would lag global growth over the next two decades and setting the stage for an era of stagnation.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Sophie Hares)