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Russian leaders differ on Soviet model

By Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press / December 28, 2010

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MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia pointed at the Soviet model as an example of how various ethnic groups can have friendly ties, drawing a quick retort yesterday from the country’s president in a rare sign of friction between the two leaders.

Putin’s protege and successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, countered him by saying that the Soviet experience was not exactly a positive one and it cannot be repeated, adding that Russia may learn from the United States.

The public exchange will likely fuel speculation about tensions between the two leaders as the nation approaches the 2012 presidential election.

Putin and Medvedev have denied any rift between them and said they would decide who would run for president in 2012 so that they do not compete against each other. Most observers expect that Putin, who remains Russia’s most powerful figure, will reclaim the presidency.

Speaking at a Kremlin meeting focused on ways to assuage ethnic tensions that spilled into the open during riots outside the Kremlin on Dec. 11, Putin said Russia has failed to learn from the Soviet experience and called for cultivating Russian patriotism.

Speaking immediately after him, Medvedev said that the Soviet experience can’t cannot be reproduced.

“Can we repeat what was done during the Soviet period?’’ he said. “No, it’s impossible. The Soviet Union was a state based on ideology, and, let’s say it openly, quite a rigid one. Russia is different. We need to work out new approaches.’’

During the Dec. 11 riots, soccer fans and racists chanting “Russia for Russians!’’ clashed with police and beat members of ethnic minority groups from the Caucasus region.

The violence in Moscow raised doubts about the government’s ability to control a rising tide of xenophobia, which threatens the country’s existence.

While ethnic Russians make up four-fifths of Russia’s population of 142 million, the country is also home to about 180 ethnic groups. The Caucasus region, with its mountainous terrain and isolated valleys, has residents of at least 100 ethnicities. That includes Chechens, who have waged two separatist wars against Moscow since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Putin suggested yesterday that the authorities might restore harsh Soviet era-restrictions on movement into big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. Such a move would target dark-complexioned people from the Caucasus, who flee their impoverished regions for big cities.

“We went for liberal rules of registration too early,’’ Putin said.

Medvedev, however, warned against trying to isolate ethnic groups. “We can’t block people from moving around the country, although we need to control that,’’ he said. “We are a single country, and we must learn to live together.’’

Medvedev warned that ethnic tensions could break Russia up if the government fails to stem violent nationalism and act more harshly to disperse riots.

“Interethnic conflicts are deadly dangerous for Russia,’’ Medvedev said.

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