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Russia's NATO envoy returns to politics to give Putin nationalist backing ahead of elections
MOSCOW (AP) ' Russia's envoy to NATO urged his supporters Wednesday to join up with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, giving the Kremlin a strong nationalist card heading into elections.
Russia holds a parliamentary election in December and a presidential ballot next year in which Putin, now prime minister, is widely expected to reclaim the presidency.
NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin is an outspoken defender of ethnic Russians who feel threatened by the influx of Muslims from southern Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. His blustery version of Russian chauvinism has played well with voters in the past.
But Rogozin's growing popularity appeared to alarm the Kremlin and he left the party under pressure in 2006 after a scandal over a television ad that compared Muslim migrants to trash. Putin, president at the time, appointed him NATO ambassador in 2008, a move seen as neutralizing a political threat.
Rogozin's return to Russian politics on Wednesday came with a clear declaration of loyalty.
"My choice is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," he told members of the Congress of Russian Communities, an organization he formed in the early 1990s. They then dutifully voted to join the Russian Popular Front, an organization created by Putin to broaden the appeal of his dominant United Russia party.
Rogozin said his supporters should not only run for parliament but aim to take positions in the executive branch "where there are many people who think as we do."
Rogozin said his task is to lead a debate on what he calls the "Russian question" to prevent nationalist anger from exploding on the street as it did last December when racist riots raged just outside the Kremlin walls.
President Dmitry Medvedev made an appeal for ethnic tolerance in a major policy speech earlier this month. Medvedev and Putin have said they will decide together which one of them will run for president in March.