Putin Links Rivals to West

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 22, 2007

MOSCOW, Nov. 21 -- President Vladimir Putin accused political opponents Wednesday of being in the pockets of foreign governments and plotting street revolution with "Western specialists" to divide and enfeeble Russia.

"Unfortunately, some people in this country treacherously gather near foreign embassies, and are hanging around diplomatic missions in hope of support from foreign funds and governments, not from their own people," Putin told several thousand supporters at a Moscow sports arena where Soviet-era songs energized the mostly young crowd.

"There are those confronting us who do not want us to carry out our plans, because they have . . . a different view of Russia," Putin said. "They need a weak and feeble state. They need a disorganized and disoriented society, a split society, so that they can carry out their dirty tricks behind its back."

The view that opposition to Putin and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party should be equated with treachery has become a staple of the ruling elite's rhetoric, but it is reaching new heights in advance of parliamentary elections Dec. 2 and a presidential election in March.

Putin is heading the United Russia ticket, which opinion polls suggest will secure an overwhelming victory in next month's vote. But little is being left to chance. The demonization of the opposition is reinforced at every turn by the state-run media, as is the claim that a coalition of Russian grass-roots activists and Western governments, particularly the United States, is scheming to topple Putin through the kind of street protests that ushered in pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

"Our opponents want to see us divided," Putin said. "Now that they have learned some things from Western specialists and tried them in the neighboring republics, they are going to try them here on our streets."

The speech came at a time of rising hostility to the West and its institutions, expressed most recently in a dispute with Europe's leading election monitoring organization over the conditions under which it could observe the Dec. 2 vote. The organization, an arm of the 56-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, decided not to send a team to Russia, citing restrictions imposed by authorities here.

The opposition coalition Other Russia, led by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, is planning rallies in several Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, this weekend.

"They're trying to scare themselves with various plots and scenarios," said Marina Litvinovich, a member of Other Russia's executive committee. "And everyone outside United Russia and the power is becoming an enemy."

With Putin enjoying huge approval ratings, unlike the jaded and reviled leaders who were removed from power in Ukraine and Georgia, many analysts here say there isn't the slightest chance of a popular uprising. In any case, the state's control is so strong that any serious protests would likely be quickly crushed.

"What is striking is the extent to which the president of the Russian Federation is portraying the West as a destabilizing factor, as in fact an enemy," said Tatyana Lokshina, head of Demos, a Moscow-based human rights groups. At home, "Putin's opponents are described as the opponents of Russia. The theme is familiar, but the language is incredibly strong and very depressing."

The gathering where Putin spoke Wednesday was organized by the new For Putin movement, an ostensibly spontaneous and grass-roots organization whose goal is to persuade Putin to remain in power. The group has held rallies across the country in the last month.

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