MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday that Russia would take strong action to prevent racist violence and also harshly criticized his liberal political foes, signalling a possible crackdown on government opponents ahead of the country’s next elections.
Some 5,000 far-right extremists rallied outside the Kremlin over the weekend in Moscow, attacking members of mostly Muslim ethnic minorities before clashing with police. The violence left more than 30 people wounded and raised doubts about the government’s ability to stem a rising tide of xenophobia. Police on Wednesday detained 800 people in the capital and other cities to prevent further violence.
“The government must and will respond harshly to such actions,” Putin said.
Putin, however, used stronger language to criticize liberals who have called his administration oppressive for sending riot police to disband protests against the government forrolling back post-Soviet freedoms.
“It’s necessary to prevent extremism from all flanks,” Putin said, during a marathon call-in session broadcast live on state television and radio that lasted for nearly 4 1/2 hours. “The liberal community must understand the need for maintaining order. The government exists to protect the majority’s interests.”
Government critics have previously accused hard-liners within the government of 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
Putin said that the racist rallies demonstrated the need to raise the prestige of the nation’s police force, which has faced public criticism over corruption and other abuses.
“We mustn’t paint them all in black and bring them down,” 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.”
Putin’s longtime aide Vladislav Surkov, now serving as the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, was even more blunt, accusing critics of the government of helping pave the way for racist hooligans by holding unauthorized rallies.
“The people were different, but their boorishness 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, accused the authorities of fomenting the latest social disorder in order to justify a crackdown on the opposition.
“They don’t have a shred of evidence that we are stirring up this trouble,” Nemtsov told The Associated Press. “Surkov is personally responsible for flaring up these tensions.”
He 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. Putin is widely expected to seek another term.
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. Asked by reporters after the call-in whether he will run for president in 2012, Putin said he has made no decision.
Putin’s protege and successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday that police must act more toughly to break up any unsanctioned rallies and added that those who are involved in rioting must face criminal punishment rather than just fines as the current practice goes.
Asked who’s in charge when both he and Medvedev are asleep, Putin joked that they take turns to take a nap.