Putin's Critics Rue 'Native Russian' Stance

President Vladimir Putin's recent remarks about the special interests of "native Russians" has boosted his approval rating, but opponents say he's encouraging a growing wave of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we wallow in pop culture. We'll review the new TV show Day Break and hangout with the band the Barenaked Ladies, who are neither bare naked nor ladies.

CHADWICK: First, President Bush made a brief stop in Russia today. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Moscow airport. This weekend the two leaders are expected to sign an agreement supporting Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. This would be another step in the economic liberalization of the former communist nation.

BRAND: Since, the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians believe new freedoms meant their country would soon look like the West. But as NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow, Russians have mixed feelings about their changing national identity.

GREGORY FEIFER: When McDonald's first opened its doors in Moscow in 1990, crowds waited in line for more than an hour to catch a glimpse of a window on the West. Now there are lots of McDonald's in the capital. Many customers exiting the original restaurant in Central Pushkin Square express distain for fast food, saying they only like its convenience.

But 21-year-old Sergei Nateyski(ph) says there's another reason he doesn't like McDonald's.

Mr. SERGEI NATEYSKI: (Through translator) I don't like Americans. I simply can't stand them. I don't know why. It's just the way I am.

FEIFER: That's not the puff of a hardened xenophobe. Nateyski is a computer programmer who says he likes visiting France and other Western countries. His friend Linus Lucano(ph) says he finds no interest in any foreigners.

Mr. LINUS LUCANO: (Through translator) In other countries people only care about themselves. They walk down the street and don't see anything except what's directly in front of them. Russians care about other people.

SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING

FEIFER: Across town, Vienna Alucheva(ph) begins class in a school that specializes in teaching English.

Ms. VIENNA ALUCHEVA (English Teacher, Moscow): Well (unintelligible) materials for the lesson. Our lessons now will be dedicated to stereotypes, breaking stereotypes, breaking of ideas that maybe you have about the (unintelligible).

FEIFER: Even here, students say they're suspicious of the United States. Sixteen-year-old Tonya Niketena(ph) says Americans don't want to see a powerful Russia.

Ms. TONYA NIKETENA: Maybe they see that if from a Russia has good relationship with other countries, maybe European countries, its power will return back. So, I think they don't want to have a (unintelligible).

FEIFER: Many Russians agree with President Vladimir Putin, that the country's new oil wealth entitles Moscow to push its interests in the world. The Kremlin is particularly upset that its former Soviet subject states - Georgia and Ukraine - want to join NATO.

After an espionage spat with Tbilisi last month, Moscow authorities began deporting Georgians. Putin said the special interests of native Russians needed to be protected. In the English class, 16-year-old Sophia Sopgabulasfeli(ph) -a Georgian resident of Moscow - says Putin's policies don't make sense.

Ms. SOPHIA SOPGABULASFELI: I think it's just discriminating of Georgians, only Georgians, because Russia, they're also Chinese and also, well and other nations. But why the Georgians? I don't understand?

FEIFER: Liberal groups say Putin's statements have changed the tone inside Russia and helped legitimize the country's growing extreme nationalist movement.

SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING

FEIFER: Last weekend thousands of nationalist supporters across Russia held demonstrations against immigrants, chanting glory to Russia and motherland or death.

Ms. MILA MITSOLK: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: At a small Moscow counter-rally against fascism where Mila Mitsolk(ph) said Putin's policies are directly to blame for a dangerous level of intolerance.

Ms. MITSOLK: (Through translator) The anti-Georgian hysteria shows no one's welcome here anymore. My parents were evacuated to Russia from Ukraine during World War II. I was born here, but I'm not a native Russian. So who am I?

FEIFER: Many Russians draw a distinction between a growing dislike for immigrants from former Soviet countries - particularly people from the Caucasuses and Central Asia - and there's still often ambiguous feelings about Westerners. But at the nationalist demonstration, protesters showed little love for any foreigners.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

FEIFER: One song played during the event said the Russians are coming to spit at the United States and Europe. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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