- Associated Press - Monday, December 27, 2010

MOSCOW | Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pointed to the Soviet model Monday as an example of how various ethnic groups can have friendly ties, drawing a quick retort from the president in a rare sign of friction between the two leaders.

Mr. Putin’s protege and successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, countered him by saying that the Soviet experience wasn’t exactly a positive one and it can’t be repeated, adding that Russia may learn from the U.S. experience.

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

The differences came as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of theft and money laundering charges. The verdict will likely keep the convict, who was once Russia’s richest man, behind bars for several more years.

The verdict came less than two weeks after Mr. Putin said Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal who should sit in prison, a blunt statement reflecting his stance against the man who challenged his power - remarks denounced by critics as interference in the trial.

Mr. Putin, who was president during Khodorkovsky’s first trial, has shown no sign of softening his attitude toward the former oligarch. Mr. Putin has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012 and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after that election.

Khodorkovsky, 47, is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging the Kremlin’s economic and political power, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament.

The conviction on charges of stealing around $27 billion worth of oil his Yukos company produced between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017.

Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs saying “Freedom” and “Russia without Putin.” Police detained some of them as they chanted “Freedom” and “Down with Putin!”

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the verdict raised questions about the rule of law being overshadowed by politics.

“This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate,” she said in a statement.

On the Russian leaders’ dispute, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have denied any rift and said they would decide who would run for president in 2012 so that they don’t compete against each other. Most observers expect that Mr. 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, Mr. Putin said that Russia has failed to learn from the Soviet experience and called for cultivating Russian patriotism.

Speaking immediately after him, Mr. Medvedev said that the Soviet experience can’t 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,” Mr. Medvedev said.

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 stem a rising tide of xenophobia, which threatens the country’s existence.

Mr. Putin suggested Monday 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-skin people from the Caucasus, who flee their impoverished regions for big cities. “We went for liberal rules of registration too early,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Medvedev said. “We mustn’t allow some dimwits to destroy our common home.”

Mr. Putin also suggested limiting jury trials, introduced throughout Russia in recent years.

During his eight-year presidency, Mr. Putin steadily rolled back Russia’s post-Soviet freedoms, abolishing direct elections of provincial governors and pushing other electoral changes that strengthened the Kremlin’s control over Russia’s political life.

The former KGB officer once described the Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”



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