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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.

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Millions of non-Slavs live in major Russian cities, the result of centuries of expansion by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union across Eurasia. Russian nationalists express particular contempt for minorities from Russia’s mainly-Muslim northern Caucasus region, an antagonism that’s been aggravated in recent years by two wars against Chechen separatists and cycles of terrorist violence that have killed hundreds of Russians in Moscow and other cities.

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“Putin said the usual things about how all Russians, of all ethnicities, should be safe in the streets of our cities,” says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the independent Sova Center, which tracks ultranationalist groups. “But he also put out other signals that give cause for worry. It sounded at times like he was blaming all opponents for the violence, not just nationalists.”

In an interview with the pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia Thursday, the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, charged that liberals who often protest for greater freedom of assembly actually caused the nationalist upsurge.

“Moscow and Russia need a civil peace,” Mr. Surkov wrote. “It’s actually our ‘liberal’ public that is constantly trying to make unapproved rallies trendy, and nationalists and rednecks just imitate them. “

Many experts, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have been warning that Russia urgently needs to undergo sweeping democratic reforms if it is to avoid the fate of the USSR.

Over the past decade, Putin and his successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, have worked to strengthen the state, along with its bureaucracy and security services, often at the expense of press freedoms and public democracy.

“Putin thinks that this type of state creates stability,” says Mr. Kolesnikov. “But Russian history tells a different story.”

Over the past century alone, two mighty, autocratic, and bureaucratized Russian regimes – Czarist and Soviet – have collapsed amid public rejoicing.

“This is why people in the Kremlin are so frightened by any protests, and think that only more force can resolve the problem,” says Kolesnikov. “That’s a very good reason for all of us to be worried.”

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