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Russia's Putin warns of police crackdowns on agitators in annual telethon

Russian Prime Minister Putin gave his annual talk to the nation Thursday, and warned against extremism like that only display in weekend riots. Some say recent police action is out of proportion to the threat.

By Correspondent / December 16, 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is seen on TV screens during a live broadcasting on Russian State Television channel at a shop in Moscow, Dec. 16. Violent rampages outside the Kremlin have highlighted the need to strengthen public order and raise police prestige, Putin said on TV Thursday.

Mikhail Metzel/AP

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Moscow

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to investigate the causes of weekend riots that led to a wave of racist violence in downtown Moscow and he warned that police will crack down hard on “virus like” ultranationalist agitators.

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Even as he spoke, police were completing a massive security sweep in 10 Russian cities that saw almost 2,000 people arrested by Thursday evening. Police said the operation was aimed at preventing any repeat of the weekend riots.

"Russia must suppress all manifestations of extremism, on all sides, wherever they may come from," Mr. Putin said at the top of his annual question-and-answer telethon, which features real time interchanges with ordinary Russians by TV hookup, e-mail, and SMS, and typically goes on for several hours.

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Comparing police to a body’s immune system, Putin said a harsh clampdown on extremists was the only way to preserve ethnic harmony in Russia’s multi-national social fabric.

“This bacillus [racism], is always present in society, just as viruses exist in all organisms," Putin said. "If a person has good immunity, these viruses remain dormant. And the same thing with society; if society's immune system is strong, if society is mature, then these bacilli of nationalism and radicalism will just sit there quietly, at cell level, and not act up."

Police say they arrested 800 people in Moscow alone on Wednesday, and seized a large quantity of small weapons, including knives, stun guns, and blunt objects.

But critics say police actions are not proportional to the threat posed by Russia’s mininscule ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groupings, and warn the crackdown might be a prelude to a wider campaign against Kremlin opponents.

“We are witnessing a breakdown of state institutions, and not a revolution or organized uprising by nationalists,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an editor with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta.

“The authorities have only one tool, and that is arrests. But this can lead only to a tougher regime,” he says. “And this may be just what Putin wants. Perhaps he intends to use this to promote his own bid to become president again.”

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