Putin warns ethnic tensions risk tearing Russia apart

MOSCOW/KISLOVODSK, Russia Mon Jan 23, 2012 5:55pm EST

1 of 3. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the Southern Peoples of Russia Forum in the town of Kislovodsk January 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool

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MOSCOW/KISLOVODSK, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, warning ethnic tensions could tear Russia apart, said on Monday he would toughen migration rules and keep a tight rein on Russia's regions to prevent it following the Soviet Union into oblivion.

In a newspaper article and an address in southern Russia, Putin used the danger of ethnic discord to call for limits on electoral reforms.

"With the collapse of the country (the Soviet Union), we were on the edge -- and in some regions over the edge -- of civil war," Putin wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

"With great effort, with great sacrifice we were able to douse these fires. But that doesn't mean that the problem is gone," he wrote in the second of a series of articles promoting his leadership goals ahead of a March 4 presidential election.

Putin, in power since 2000 and favored to win a six-year presidential term in March, described a Soviet-style vision of a country in which the rights of ethnic minorities would be respected but Russian language and culture would dominate.

"The Russian people, the Russian culture is the glue holding together the unique fabric of this civilization," Putin wrote.

Putin is steering a fine line between Orthodox Christian ethnic Russians, some of whom fear labor migration and higher birth rates among Russia's Muslims, and ethnic tensions which could challenge his vision of a centralized, united, Russia.

Thousands of nationalists have protested in Moscow over migration and state subsidies to the mostly Muslim North Caucasus, where an Islamist insurgency rooted in the Chechen wars persists.

Comparing nationalism to a disease, Putin took aim at ethnic Russian nationalists, who have been among the 59-year-old prime minister's most vociferous critics.

"If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability," Putin wrote. "We need to understand what far-reaching effects can be caused by attempts to inflame national enmity and hatred."

He said minorities must live under the umbrella of Russian culture, and migrants must pass exams in Russian language and history. Authorities should be given more power to vet migrants' professional skills and students should read some 100 national classics.

But he also said the best way to stem migration was by creating favorable conditions for citizens to work in their native regions.

Without naming names, he took aim at the idea of cutting federal subsidies for the North Caucasus, promoted by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny.

"The goals of such activists are clear and they have nothing in common with the real attempts to solve ethnic problems, with Russia's development and interests of its citizens," Putin told the conference of Peoples of Russia's South in Kislovodsk.

In the article, he plugged his plan for a Eurasian Union linking Russia with other ex-Soviet republics including those in Central Asia -- the source of millions of labor migrants in Russia -- saying closer ties would help curb migration by helping to develop their economies.

Yet in a sign he will not reverse a consolidation of power in Moscow, Putin said he could not allow regional political parties because some could be created on ethnic lines, calling it a "direct path to separatism."

"What is omitted is even more important than what is included (in the article)," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Reuters.

"There is no mention of federalism here and the idea here is that a centralized state should be stronger in order to prevent disintegration," he said.

President Dmitry Medvedev submitted a bill this month that would restore popular elections for Russia's regional governors. But Putin suggested on Monday that potential governors may need presidential approval to run.

"We need to tune this mechanism properly," he said.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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