Russian paper faces axe after poking fun at Putin

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MOSCOW, Sep 21 (Reuters) A Russian regional newspaper is under threat of closure after it poked fun at President Vladimir Putin and depicted him in the uniform of the Nazi Germany SS, its editor said today.

A member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has brought a legal action to shut down the Saratov Reporter, published weekly in the Volga city of Saratov, which ran the satirical piece and offending picture on August. 31.

In a collage, a picture of Putin's head was pasted onto the body of Max Otto von Stierlitz, a fictitious Soviet spy who worked as a mole in the SS in a cult 1970s film, one of Putin's favourite spy movies.

Putin, an ex-KGB spy himself who served in Germany, four years ago personally decorated the actor who played von Stierlitz.

''Stierlitz has nothing to do with this. It's President Putin who is featured there,'' Alexander Lando, a lawyer and United Russia active member, told Reuters by telephone from Saratov.

''Can you imagine a president of any Western nation being shown in a SS uniform? This lies beyond morality or any ethical standards.'' Rosokhrankultura, a body created by Putin to supervise the mass media, backed Lando's initiative, sending a lawsuit to the regional court and asking for the weekly to be closed.

''This collage ... serves to associate Russian President Vladimir Putin with an officer of SS troops of Nazi Germany,'' the lawsuit said.

''One can clearly see the hand of United Russia behind the lawsuit, the big, fat, brazen hand conspicuously standing out in full size,'' the weekly's editor-in-chief, Sergei Mikhailov, told Reuters by telephone.

United Russia, he said, was trying to gag a dissenting voice in Saratov and stop him running for the regional assembly as a non-party candidate.

Russia holds parliamentary elections in December and the United Russia party, patronised by Putin, is expected to win a majority of seats in the 450-member chamber. Most regional governors, including Saratov's, are United Russia members.

''They are afraid of me and they fear United Russia's rating may dip here because we write critical stories about them,'' Mikhailov said. He maintained that the picture of Putin was no more than a joke.

Putin has vowed to step down in 2008 after presidential elections set for March. He is expected to use his wide popularity to help a handpicked successor win a landslide.

A local United Russia spokesman shrugged off the criticism: ''This paper has not won the respect of the people,'' he told Reuters. ''The editor is like a miserable dog barking at an elephant,'' he said.

REUTERS GT RK2140

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