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Putin's emotions spill over

File Photo of Vladimir Putin
file photo
Much like with an estranged couple, the tense dialogue between Russian state power and the opposition has escalated after a meeting between members of the opposition and the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. It culminated in a confrontation between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and one of his chief critics, Ekho Moskvy's Alexei Venediktov. "Who are you going to vote for?" Putin asked Venediktov at the end of a hastily arranged dinner with top journalists at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo Wednesday evening.

"I haven't been going to the elections since 1996, Vladimir Vladimirovich."


"I'll tell you why," Venediktov said.

"You seem hurt, I can feel it, I can see it in your face. You shouldn't be," Putin interrupted.

"Yes, I am hurt. I'm hurt. I'll tell you later."

"But I don't get hurt when you pour diarrhea on me from morning till night," Putin said, according to the official transcript. "I just said two words, and you're already hurt."

"I was joking, I wasn't hurt."

"But I'm not joking," Putin said.

The exchange followed Venediktov's question about why Putin would not meet with critics - to which Putin answered that they never answered his invitations. He continued with criticism of Venediktov's radio station - which is controlled by state-owned Gazprom - over comments that a planned U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe won't pose a threat to Russia.

A day after arriving in Moscow on Tuesday, America's new ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, met with oppositionist leaders and civil activists - and gave fodder to growing anti-American rhetoric accusing dissenters of getting paid by the U.S. State Department.

While there was no mention of the incident during Putin's meeting on Wednesday, it may have played a role in Putin's irritation.

McFaul hosted several meetings with oppositionists like PARNAS leader Boris Nemtsov and activists like Yevgenia Chirikova, founder of the Movement to Protect Khimki Forest, and Sergei Kanayev, president of the Russian Federation of Car Owners.

During one of the meetings Kanayev even tried to joke about accusations that protesters at opposition rallies were being paid by foreign interests - asking if he could get his payment.

"I told [McFaul] I had a personal question," Kanayev told The Moscow News. "Vladimir Putin said that people who turned up to the opposition rallies were paid by the State Department. Could he comment on this, and if it's true, can I get paid? Mr. McFaul said I should turn to the person who made such statements. That he didn't know anything about it."

The incident was reported on national television Tuesday evening along with programs accusing Mc- Faul of working to stage a revolution in Russia. YouTube videos of the activists approaching the U.S. Embassy appeared. Titled "Getting instructions at the U.S. Embassy," they added fire to an increase in comments from Russian officials blaming the United States for everything from oppositionist rallies to the crash of the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe.

In December Vladimir Putin blamed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fueling oppositionist rallies - and claimed that some of the demonstrators had been paid to show up.

In that context, the visit with McMcFaul outraged the blogosphere - and not just its loyalist camp.

"Where's the grant, Misha?" and "McFaul, give me a million" were some of the most common responses to McFaul's LiveJournal post about the meeting.

"All senior U.S. officials visiting Russia make a point of meeting with both government officials and civil society leaders," McFaul said of the meeting in his Tuesday LiveJournal post. "It's a policy we call dual track engagement. We learned a lot from listening to these leaders."

'Putin didn't invite us'

When asked about the meeting being used against them, the activists downplayed the seriousness of the rhetoric.

"They are paranoid and sick," Boris Nemtsov told The Moscow News. "What's the problem? It's a normal meeting. I've known Mc- Faul for a long time. Those people who went to [oppositionist rallies on] Bolotnaya Square and Prospect Sakharova are smart enough to understand."

Kanayev distanced himself from the political opposition, insisting that he came to the meeting as a public activist, not a political one.

"I don't think that America will save Russia," Kanayev said. "I think the intention of the ambassador to meet with civil society is a good thing. Putin didn't invite us. The ambassador did."

In contrast, Yevgenia Chirikova did not deny that she was seeking U.S. help - and complained to Mc- Faul that people were insulted that Putin had alleged they had been paid to go to rallies.

Asked whether she was concerned the meeting could be misinterpreted and used to discredit her movement, she said she was not.

"I came to talk about the situation in Russia and about the importance of [the U.S.] adopting the Magnitsky Act," Chirikova told The Moscow News, referring to a bill named after the Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention in 2009. "I said it was important to stop corruption. The act will make it possible to freeze assets of corrupt officials abroad... who steal our country's resources."

Chirikova had also Tweeted on Tuesday that "if it's possible to use America in the fight against... Putin, who are stealing our country's resources, then it needs to be done!"

Chirikova explained that this referred to her support of the Magnitsky Act, which "could serve as log to beat our corrupt officials with."

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