France says Russia must explain opposition arrests

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PARIS, Nov 26 (Reuters) Russia should explain the weekend beating and detention of people protesting against President Vladimir Putin, including former chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov, France's foreign minister said today.

Russian riot police beat opposition activists yesterday and detained nearly 200 people at protest rallies against Putin a week before the country's parliamentary election.

The protests came a day after police detained Kasparov in Moscow -- a move the United States condemned yesterday as part of ''aggressive tactics'' by authorities.

''I am surprised by this violence. To my knowledge, the world chess champion was not a threat to Russia's security,'' French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told RTL radio.

Kasparov, leader of the Other Russia group, was among 60 detained in the 3,000-strong Moscow march, activists said.

''All this deserves an explanation. It seems very pointless and does not give Russia a good image, an adequate image at the time of the election,'' Kouchner added.

Putin's opponents accuse the Kremlin chief of cracking down on the freedoms won after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and of creating what they say is an unstable political system dependent on Putin alone.

Kouchner, however, was less critical. Asked if Russia was becoming a dictatorship, he said: ''No. The election is taking place. There are mistreated opposition parties, it is true, but let us not forget where Russia is coming from.

''Russia 20 years ago was in a real dictatorship situation.'' Putin, ranked by opinion polls as the most popular politician in Russia, is credited by supporters for cementing political stability and presiding over the longest economic boom for a generation.

The former KGB spy has vowed to step down as president next year after his second consecutive four-year term in office.

But he has said he will use the pro-Kremlin United Russia party to preserve influence after he steps down. He is running as the party's top candidate in the December election.

''Russia wants to take its place, a large place, in contemporary history and for that it has to evolve and not seem menacing,'' Kouchner said.

REUTERS PD ND1522

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