Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to help millions of ethnic Russians who live in other former Soviet republics to resettle in Russia.

Speaking to a congress of representatives from Russian communities living abroad, Mr. Putin said that starting January 15, immigration rules will be eased to allow ethnic Russians to obtain residence and work permits.

The Russian leader told the meeting in St. Petersburg authorities realize that with the break-up of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Russians involuntarily found themselves outside Russia. He then pledged to ease procedures for their return to the Russian Federation.

Mr. Putin also again expressed concern about the situation of some 600,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia still without full citizenship rights. He pledged full support for their cause, saying Russia has a moral duty to defend their rights and liberties.

Some Russian speakers in the two Baltic countries have chosen not to seek citizenship to avoid the need for requesting visas when traveling to Russia. Others have been unable to gain sufficient language proficiency required for Estonian or Latvian citizenship.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP .