By LYNN BERRY (AP)
MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin disparaged Russian dissidents in crude street language in an interview Monday and said they would keep getting beaten if they continued to hold unauthorized rallies.
Putin has never shown much tolerance for dissent. After he became president a decade ago, Russia cracked down on opposition leaders and increased government control of the media. Now as prime minister, Putin still wields tremendous influence over policy, despite the presence of President Dmitry Medvedev. Putin has been coy over whether he will run in the 2012 presidential election.
Putin told journalists on Monday that it was “complete gibberish” that he continues to run the country.
“I’m tired of foreign policy,” Putin told journalists traveling with him in Russia’s Far East. He said Medvedev was handling it well and he saw no need to interfere.
In the interview published in the newspaper Kommersant, Putin defended his record and touched on a variety of topics, including foreign policy.
He said President Barack Obama seemed sincere in his desire to improve Moscow-Washington relations, despite U.S. policies that appeared more hostile. Putin pointed to continued U.S. military support for Georgia following its brief war with Russia in 2008 and U.S. plans to put a missile defense system in eastern Europe.
He also said imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky deserved his punishment. Khodorkovsky, serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion, is now on trial on new charges that carry a sentence of up to 22 years.
Putin said in the Kommersant interview that he was surprised to learn of the second case against Khodorkovsky. That claim caused some wry amusement among Khodorkovsky’s supporters, who say the legal assault against him was punishment for challenging Putin.
It was questions about the political opposition, though, that inspired the colorful language Putin seems to love.
“What’s good about the contemporary world?” Putin was quoted as saying. “You can say something around the corner from a public toilet and the whole world will hear because all the television cameras will be there.”
Russia’s opposition leaders depend on international television exposure because they are blacklisted from Russian television and their protests are rarely aired.
Putin predicted that Russian police would keep breaking up opposition protests unless the dissidents obtain official permission to rally — permission they are routinely denied in central Moscow.
“You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that’s it,” Putin declared.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said the interview showed Putin to be “dishonest, ignorant and evil.”
“It’s clear that the call to beat your own people, moreover those who are unarmed and not showing any resistance, is a crime,” Nemtsov wrote in his blog.
Opposition groups plan to rally Tuesday evening and predict that police will now be emboldened to use greater force in detaining protesters.
The opposition holds protests on the last day of every month with 31 days to call attention to Article 31 of Russia’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. Nemtsov was among the dozens detained at last month’s protest.
The rallies have been held on Triumph Square, but this month the Moscow city government fenced it off and announced plans to build an underground parking garage. Putin said he was unaware that the square had been closed. “I give you my honest word as a party member,” he said, resurrecting an expression used by Communist Party members in Soviet times.