Putin offers blame but no cure to ethnic riots

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called extremism a "virus" on Thursday but offered no instant remedy for the ethnic violence that has been shaking Moscow and other Russian cities in recent days.

"Russia must suppress all manifestations of extremism, on all sides, wherever they may come from," Putin said in an annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people.

"The authorities must and will respond severely," the country's powerful strongman said in nationally televised remarks.

Putin's comments came a day after the police detained more than 1,000 youths in Moscow and other cities in a nation-wide security sweep aimed at staving off ethnic riots from erupting following the deadly shooting of a football fan by a Muslim suspect.

The violence underscored the delicate state of Russia's ethnic relations and the numerous problems the country faces as it comes under the international spotlight for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup.

Putin argued that Russia was still a young country that was only learning how to handle problems as sensitive as race.

"This bacillus, it is always present in society -- just like viruses exist in everyone's organisms," Putin said.

"If a person has good immunity, these viruses never develop. And the same thing with society -- if society's immune system is strong, if society is mature, then these bacilli of nationalism, radicalism -- they will just sit there quietly, at cell level, and not stick their necks out."

But rights leaders and independent analysts criticised Putin for wasting an opportunity to introduce a substantive cure for the xenophobic woes plaguing Russian society.

In the latest shocking case, Russian investigators said Thursday a boy aged just 14 had been arrested on suspicion of the apparently racist murder of a Kyrgyz citizen in Moscow at the weekend.

"The fact that we are seeing the spread of the extremism virus -- that is Putin's own fault. He is the one who has been in power these recent years," said Civic Assistance Committee chair Svetlana Gannushkina.

"We have developed a society in which protest movements are turning to fascism. We have allowed fascism to bloom," said the award-winning rights campaigner.

Others noted that Russia's security services follow closely in line with the former KGB agent Putin's wishes -- but that the prime minister issued no new instructions in Thursday's address.

"These broad comments are not going to influence how events develop -- and things are only getting worse," said SOVA rights centre deputy director Galina Kozhevnikova.

The latest wave of rallies and riots were led by youths who organised their illegal gatherings by turning to Twitter and their other favourite social network feeds.

Kremlin-linked lawmakers have sought granting the police more authority to monitor such sites and prosecute those who use them to foment hatred and violence.

But Putin refused to blame the Internet for the incidents. He also backed the work of the police and threw a dart at liberals who complain that they get treated far more severely than the youths who chanted the Nazi salutes.

"We must understand that these law enforcement authorities are performing a vital function for the state, and that their work should not be ridiculed," said Putin.

"Otherwise, our liberal intelligentsia will have to shave off its beards any put on (police) helmets and walk out on the squares themselves."

© 2010 AFP

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