- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) — Violent rampages outside the Kremlin have highlighted the need to strengthen public order and raise police prestige, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday, using the occasion to lash out at liberal critics.

Mr. Putin spoke after a weekend rally of 5,000 racists and hooligans in Moscow left more than 30 people injured and raised doubts about the government’s ability to stem a rising tide of xenophobia. Police on Wednesday, however, prevented a replay of the violence between nationalists and mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in the capital and several other cities, detaining hundreds.

Mr. Putin struck out at liberal critics who have criticized his government for sending riot police to disband opposition protests.

“It’s necessary to prevent extremism from all flanks,” Mr. Putin said during a marathon call-in session broadcast live on state television and radio that lasted for more than four hours. “The liberal community must understand the need for maintaining order. The government exists to protect the majority’s interests.”

He continued the scathing attack, saying that the rallies demonstrated the need to raise the prestige of the nation’s police force. The force has faced public criticism over corruption and other abuses.

“We mustn’t paint them all in black and bring them down,” Mr. Putin said. “Or otherwise the liberal intellectuals will be the ones who have to shave their thin beards off, put helmets on and go out on the square to fight the radicals.”

Moscow police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said some of the 800 people detained in the capital on Thursday were released immediately. Others, particularly those found to be carrying weapons, were held for investigation. He said he could not say how many were still in police custody.

Preceding Mr. Putin‘s comments, his longtime aide Vladislav Surkov, now serving as the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, accused critics of the government of helping pave the way for racist hooligans by holding unauthorized rallies. “People were different, but their attitude was the same,” he said in an interview published Thursday in the daily newspaper Izvestia.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, now a fierce Kremlin critic, fired the accusation of fomenting social disorder back at the authorities and at Mr. Putin himself.

“They don’t have a shred of evidence that we are stirring up this trouble,” Mr. Nemtsov told the Associated Press. “Surkov is personally responsible for flaring up these tensions.”

Many Russian observers in the past have noted links between nationalist groups and some part of officialdom, saying that hard-liners within the government may be supporting nationalists to justify tight Kremlin controls and fend off efforts to open up Russia’s political system.

While Russian police quickly and brutally disperse peaceful protests by anti-Kremlin activists, some nationalist groups have been allowed to hold their rallies freely in recent years. Opposition groups claim that pro-Kremlin youth organizations have hired soccer fans and ultranationalists to carry out attacks on Kremlin critics.

Mr. Nemtsov said it was in the Kremlin’s interests to foment tensions so it can use the resulting violence as a pretext to introduce new, tougher laws on public protests ahead of a new presidential election cycle.

Russia votes on a new parliament in late 2011 and on a new president in March 2012. Mr. Putin is widely expected to seek another term.

Mr. Putin shifted into the premier’s seat in 2008 following two consecutive four-year terms in office, but has remained the nation’s No. 1 leader, overshadowing his protege and successor, President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Medvedev has initiated a constitutional amendment that will extend the presidential term from four to six years starting in 2012.

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