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Putin: U.S. mars Russia's image and rejects friendship

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of trying to undermine Russia to further its global dominance and said Washington had ignored Moscow’s attempts to build a friendship.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses a congress of his United Russia party held near Moscow's Red Square December 17, 2007. REUTERS/Pool

In an interview with Time magazine, which named the Russian president its “Person of the Year” for 2007 on Wednesday, Putin said Washington had adopted its strategy of belittling Russia to try to influence the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

“I believe ... this is a single-minded attempt to create a certain image of Russia which allows (Washington) to influence our internal and external policy,” Putin said in the interview posted on the Kremlin’s official site www.kremlin.ru.

“Russia hasn’t only said but also repeatedly demonstrated by its entire policy in the last 15 years that we do not only want to be America’s partner, but a friend as well,” he said.

“But sometimes I have the impression that America does not need friends. We have the impression that America needs vassals to command.”

He said the United States was trying to “seek problems inside Russia all the time”.

“That’s why they tell us and all the others, ‘Well, let’s pinch and reproach them a bit, because they (Russians) are not quite civilized, they are still wild, they have just jumped off a tree. This is why we must comb their hair a bit -- they cannot do it themselves -- and shave them and wash off their mud’.”

Putin, Russia’s most popular politician who is due to step down in 2008, has overseen an oil-fuelled economic boom and sought to develop an assertive, independent role for Moscow in international affairs during his eight-year rule.

While investors flock to Russia, Moscow’s foreign policy rifts with the West have widened during Putin’s presidency.

Time magazine named Putin its “Person of the Year”, saying he had returned Russia from chaos to the “table of world power” though at a cost of democratic freedoms.

“GREAT MISTAKE”

The 55-year-old ex-KGB agent has been criticized for backtracking on democratic reforms. He has accused the West of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs by financing its liberal opposition which he dismisses as “a bunch of marginals”.

Putin said Russia must get rid of the legacy of its Soviet-era history when the Soviet Union tried to lead a universal communist revolution.

“This was a great mistake,” he said. “We don’t want to rule anyone, we don’t want to be a superpower of any kind. ... But we want to have enough forces to be able to defend ourselves, to protect our interests.”

Putin, who worked for the Soviet-era KGB security service, praised ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and late president Boris Yeltsin for helping dismantle the communist system.

Asked to explain earlier statements that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, Putin replied: “I meant not the political aspect of the Soviet Union’s break-up, but the humanitarian one.”

He said 25 million ethnic Russians became foreigners in other ex-Soviet states after the Soviet Union’s collapse, often having no means to visit their motherland.

Putin has said he will influence Russian politics after stepping down as president. He said this week he would agree to be Russia’s new prime minister if his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev won a March 2 presidential election.

Asked how he felt being a “national leader” -- a term coined by loyalists specially for Putin’s post-presidency period -- he replied: “I never felt and don’t feel like being one right now.”

“I feel like such a workhorse drawing a heavily laden cart. And I must say, I in general get pleasure, depending on how fast and how efficiently I manage to keep moving in this direction.”

editing by Elizabeth Piper

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