Russians cheer Putin anniversary
MOSCOW, Russia -- Thousands of Russian college students have commemorated the first anniversary of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration.
The students -- sponsored by Walking Together, a pro-presidential youth organisation -- rallied outside the Kremlin on Monday wearing Putin T-shirts and listening to patriotic speeches.
Group leader Vasily Yakemenko said: "We are for unity, for the unification of the people of our country. Putin has appeared as a unifying, consolidating figure. We are very grateful to him for that.
"The youth of Russia is looking toward Russia, and not the West and who knows what! Russians are trusting. That's why they were able to palm off on us Western loans and put all sorts of garbage in our stores. They tried to sell us some Western model of relations."
Organisers estimated the turnout at 10,000 people.
Analysts say Putin gained much of his popularity from his firm handling of the war in Chechnya, which remains popular in Russia despite steady casualties.
Putin made a surprise trip to Chechnya on April 14, 2001. In his first visit since becoming president, Putin laid flowers at the site where 84 Russian troops were killed in an ambush by Chechen rebels last year, state-run RTR television said.
Recently the government withdrew some troops, but the rebels -- while no longer carrying out large-scale military operations -- still kill Russian troops daily with ambushes and mines.
Russian forces were driven out of Chechnya by rebels in a 1996 after two years of fighting. But they returned in September 1999 after rebel incursions into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings in Moscow, which they blamed on the rebels.
Putin is also faced with United States President George W. Bush's recent intentions to move toward a national missile defence system, a proposal banned by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Bush considers the treaty outdated and wants to scrap it.
Some European allies fear the move could heighten tensions between Russia and the U.S., which could result in a new arms race if Russia feels pressure to keep up.
Putin initially opposed the idea strongly but has become more conciliatory in recent days. The Kremlin said it "welcomed consultations with Americans," but insisted on "keeping and strengthening" the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
In his first response to the speech, in which Bush outlined the U.S. plans to push ahead with a National Missile Defence System, Putin said he agreed with Bush that times had changed in some ways.
"It is difficult not to agree with the president of the United States in this sense, that the world is changing rapidly and new threats are appearing," he said.
He recently urged the United States to work with Russia on arms issues and welcomed Bush's indications he would consult other countries on the defence system.
"First, we should not destroy the established system of international security, and second, we must act together to perfect it," Putin said.
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