By Gleb Bryanski
SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia must counter a serious threat from nationalists he said were taking advantage of democratic freedoms to gain influence in a country with a fragile mix of ethnic groups.
He rebuked local authorities, saying recent outbreaks of ethnic violence were "primarily the result of the inaction of law enforcement organs and irresponsibility of bureaucrats".
"Today more and more often, under the guise of development of democracy and freedom, various ethnic nationalist groups are raising their heads. They take part in rallies, work on the Internet and among teenagers and students," Putin said,
"In essence they all are pushing, provoking separatist tendencies inside Russia," the president said, addressing the first meeting of his Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations. "It is important to confront their dangerous influence."
Russia has seen several outbreaks of ethnic violence in recent years, including December 2010 riots near the Kremlin in which thousands of nationalist soccer fans attacked non-Slavic passers-by and clashed with police.
Nationalist soccer fans on Thursday attacked supporters of a team from the Muslim North Caucasus province of Dagestan in Moscow and St Petersburg, cities where tension between ethnic Russians and migrants from the Caucasus and other areas has risen.
"We do not have the right to ignore any negative tendencies which arise in this sphere. We should understand that conflicts may not only weaken the state and society but destroy its foundations," Putin said.
"CORRUPTION AND PREJUDICE"
"Corruption and prejudice among representatives of state bodies, and their inability to provide justice and defend people's interests, are fuelling ethnic conflict and tension," Putin said.
After four years as prime minister, Putin won the presidency in March despite a series of opposition protests, fuelled by suspicions of fraud in a December parliamentary vote won by his long-entrenched party.
Many protesters were liberals, but some were nationalists who shared their thirst for a stronger voice in politics.
The Kremlin responded to the protests with tough measures ranging from increased fines for infractions at protests to apartment searches and criminal charges against some activists. The authorities said the measures were needed to maintain order.
The trial of three women from punk band Pussy Riot for an irreverent protest against Putin in a cathedral has also increased tension.
The Slavic-rooted Russian Orthodox Church portrayed their performance as an attack on traditional Russian values, while Kremlin critics said the two-year sentences they received for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" showed Putin was eager to suppress dissent in his new six-year term.
Putin interrupted a working vacation in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to travel to Saransk, capital of central Russia's Mordovia region, home to the Finno-Ugric speaking Mordvin people - one of over 200 ethnic groups in Russia.
The trip was to mark what is considered the 1,000th anniversary of the region joining Russia. It was part of Putin's effort to cast himself as a protector of Russia's unity and ethnic diversity and use his power to discourage ethnic tension.
(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Pravin Char)