Putin celebrates 55th birthday with spy chiefs despite mass protests

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The Independent Online

Activists shivered in the rain at a solemn commemoration yesterday marking the first anniversary of journalist Anna Politkovskaya's slaying while across town, some 10,000 pro-Kremlin youth thronged a Moscow embankment to congratulate President Vladimir Putin on his 55th birthday.

Members of the youth group Nashi — wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Putin's portrait — chanted "Happy Birthday!" and carried signs bearing slogans such as "Putin is our everything!" and "Putin is our future!" in a show eerily reminiscent of Soviet-era parades.

The celebrations come as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections in which Putin would top the list of the main pro-Kremlin party — a manoeuvre that could pave way for his return as prime minister after his second and final presidential term ends next spring.

The show of support for Putin took place as about 1,000 opposition activists paid tribute to Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic who won international acclaim for her reporting about wartime abuses in Chechnya and whose contract-style killing fueled Western concerns about Russia's backsliding on democracy.

"Politkovskaya's murder has shown that our country is in big trouble," Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia's former premier-turned-opposition leader, said Sunday. "We still hope that people will realize what's going on in the country and come together."

Putin dismissed such concerns in the days after her death, saying Politkovskaya wielded little influence with her reports and that her killing hurt the Russian government much more than her writing.

In August, Russia's chief prosecutor announced 10 suspects had been arrested. He said her murder had been ordered by someone outside the country to discredit Putin and to destabilize Russia, echoing officials' earlier claims.

"I'm afraid that Politkovskaya's murder will never be solved," said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the non-governmental Civic Assistance Committee.

The Kremlin issued no statement Sunday related to Politkovskaya's death.