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Putin vows no return to ‘Stalinist’ repressions

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday vowed there would be no throwback to Stalin-era repression in Russia as he sought to bolster his image as the country’s unchallenged strongman in the first nationwide phone-in of his new Kremlin term.

Putin, 60, sought to show during the almost five-hour question-and-answer marathon that he remains in control of the country since returning to the presidential post in May 2012 in the face of unprecedented protests against his 13-year rule.

By contrast with a 2011 phone-in, when in an off-key remark he compared the opposition’s white ribbons to condoms, Putin on Thursday showed off his genial mood and calmly faced a series of questions about the protest movement.

“I do not see any elements of Stalinism” under his rule, Putin told a cherry-picked audience including decorated officers, rural paramedics and Soviet-era celebrities.

“Stalinism is linked to the cult of personality, mass violations of the law, repressions and camps. There is nothing like this in Russia and, I hope, never will be again,” Putin said.

But he added: “This does not mean that we should not have order and discipline.”

Since the start of his third term, Putin has all but dismantled any lingering legacy of his younger predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, who had briefly raised hopes of a liberal transformation of Russia.

In what critics say was a bid to quash dissent, Putin pushed through a string of tough laws expanding the definition of treason and requiring non-governmental groups with international funding to register as “foreign agents”.

Just as Putin fielded questions from Sochi on the Black Sea to Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre to the Far East, a Moscow court jailed a prominent activist, Konstantin Lebedev, for two-and-a-half years over his involvement in an opposition rally last year.

Also Thursday, a polls monitor Golos was given a $13,000 (10,000 euro) fine for refusing to register as a “foreign agent,” while Putin’s top critic Alexei Navalny, who faces up to 10 years in prison, was standing trial on what he says are trumped-up charges.

Putin stressed however that no-one in Russia was being persecuted for their political views. “Everyone who breaks the law should be held responsible,” he said, insisting that Navalny’s trial would be fair.

Opposition political commentator Mikhail Fishman noted on his blog that Putin spoke “without too much aggression. Without a mean twinkle in his eyes,” describing his seemingly smooth performance as “an illusion of success”.

Putin also expressed hope that the deadly Boston marathon bombings blamed on two suspects of Chechen origin would result in closer cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

“I hope this tragedy pushes us closer to one another in stopping shared threats,” Putin said.

But he also slammed Washington for adopting legislation targeting Russians involved in the 2009 prison death of anti-corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

“They simply needed to puff out their chests,” he said.

The organisers sprung a major surprise by inviting former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who was dramatically fired in 2011, to pose a question to Putin.

Kudrin, who stepped down following a public spat over state spending plans, told Putin that his government currently did not have a strategy to wean Russia’s economy off oil and gas.

“A system of half measures and half reforms will not work today,” the respected liberal told the Russian president in rare public criticism.

A smiling Putin for his part lamented that his former colleague from Saint Petersburg, who has expressed support for the anti-Kremlin opposition, refused his offer of a state post.

“Slacker. He doesn’t want to work,” he quipped as Kudrin chuckled in the audience.

Speculation had swirled earlier in the week that Putin would invite Kudrin back to work as an advisor to improve Russia’s battered investment climate.

Putin faced a barrage of questions about whether he was happy with the government but he shot down speculation that Medvedev’s cabinet would be soon shown the door, despite growing concerns about the economy which only grew 1.1 percent this year.

“Barely a year has passed. We need to give people a chance to realise their potential,” he said.