MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin won praise from leaders of former Soviet republics on Tuesday and called for closer integration among the now-independent states once ruled by Moscow.
He pointedly decided to snub a G8 summit in the United States this weekend and instead made the one-day conference of post-Soviet leaders the first meeting with foreign heads of state of his new presidential term.
Putin, who once called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century", called for more robust cooperation among members of regional alliances.
At meetings of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Collective Security Treaty Organisation, two organizations that group much of former the USSR, Putin hosted his first major event as president, taking advice from some of the longest serving autocrats of the post-Soviet world.
"Some people, I think, don't quite understand that a period of change is taking place in the world, and Russia should have a status the others have to reckon with," Uzbek President Islam Karimov told Putin in the Kremlin.
Putin has been facing the biggest protests against his 12 years in power, culminating in clashes with police the day before his inauguration.
Karimov, who has ruled for more than 20 years, said strong leaders like Putin were needed in turbulent times. Witnesses say hundreds were killed in Uzbekistan in 2005 during a government crackdown on an uprising.
"When hard times are coming, it can happen that any political disturbances, and any election is a disturbance, can unfold not quite in line with the planned scenario," Karimov told Putin.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, also in power for over 20 years, evoked memories of the Soviet past, mentioning such mega-projects as the Baikal Amur Mainline railroad.
"I remember the Soviet times ... Every republic took part in building (the railroad). Everyone had its own section. It fell into decay since, but what if we revive it, make it serve Russia?" Nazarbayev said.
Putin unexpectedly pulled out of a summit of the mostly Western Group of Eight nations in the United States this weekend sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place and saying he needed to work on formation of the new government.
A decree issued hours after his swearing-in called for closer integration of the ex-Soviet space a "key foreign policy direction" and reiterated plans for a Eurasian Economic Union, based on a Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The real prize for Putin would be Ukraine, which has sought to balance relations between Moscow and the European Union.
Putin made a fresh pitch to Ukraine in a meeting with President Viktor Yanukovich, whose government's jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has caused a serious rift with Europe.
"For us to be stronger - you know my position - it is necessary to achieve a higher degree of integration," Putin told Yanukovich. "Which is of course, a sovereign choice of our partners."
Editing by Thomas Grove and Andrew Roche