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Putin's bird-metaphor dig at voters: Only the weak birds 'didn't follow' him

This year's Russian-hosted summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) wrapped up in Vladivostok Sunday, with leaders of the 21-member Pacific Rim group – which accounts for 40 percent of the world's trade – pledging to promote freer regional commerce as a buffer against a lingering global crisis and financial woes in the Eurozone.

The host, President Vladimir Putin, declared the week-long meeting a complete success. "We managed not only to preserve the continuity of APEC activities, but to set new horizons and most importantly give a positive signal to business circles," he told the final news conference Sunday.

But, in an odd aside, Mr. Putin managed to overshadow the event's serious achievements and add to an already huge compendium of Putin lore by likening Russia's citizenry to a flock of birds.

He was responding to a question about the overwhelmingly derisive public reaction to his televised PR stunt last week, in which he dressed up like an endangered Siberian crane, mounted a motorized hang glider, and led a group of the captivity-raised birds onto their correct migratory path.

Among the multitude of jokes that spawned in the wake of that performance was TV hostess and opposition leader Ksenia Sobchak's jibe that actually "only 63 percent of the cranes followed him" – the same percentage that voted for Putin in March presidential polls.

Putin's response instantly lit up the Russian Internet, and will probably have commentators scratching their heads for at least the next few days: "Indeed, not all of the cranes followed me. Only the weak ones didn't follow," he said, leaving little doubt that he was working with Ms. Sobchak's metaphor.

"There are certain birds that do not fly in flocks," he went on. "They prefer to nest separately.... Even if they are not members of the flock, they are members of our population, and they have to be treated carefully – of course, to the extent that this is possible."

Big plans for Siberia

Aside from that, Putin could rightly claim the Vladivostok summit as a major impetus for Russia's efforts to turn itself into a key economic and political player in the Far East.

Among other things, he pledged that Russia – which finally joined the World Trade Organization in August – will promote Asian free trade, build an array of infrastructure projects in Siberia to facilitate the flow of Russian raw materials eastward, and create road, rail, pipeline, and sea links that will make Russian territory the main corridor for trade between Europe and the Far East.

Russia has been upgrading the 6,800 mile Trans-Siberian Highway – which still exists largely in name only – between Vladivostok on the Pacific and St. Petersburg on the Baltic, so that it might eventually be open to heavy trucking. A couple of years ago Putin's predecessor Dmitry Medvedev put forward a plan to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad through North Korea to Seoul, making direct rail links between Europe and the Far East viable for the first time. And the Kremlin has ordered creation of a special northern military force, and construction of a $30-billion port on the Arctic Ocean in anticipation of an ice-free Arctic sea route over the top of Siberia, that is expected to open up in coming years thanks to global warming.

"We suggest using our country's transit potential to diversify regional and global supply chains and to create new, shorter, more profitable routes that will link the Asia-Pacific and Europe across both the continental regions of Russia and through the North Sea route," Putin said.

Tensions with Europe over gas

Putin also slammed the European Union for trying to drive down the price of Russian gas, using non-market tactics "as if it were still Soviet times."

In fact, the European Commission is investigating Russia's state-owned natural gas behemoth, Gazprom, for a variety of alleged "anti-competitive" practices, including unfair pricing policies.

"Europe wants to maintain political influence, but in such a way that we pay for it a little," Putin told APEC.

The key message out of the APEC summit was that regional economies need to step up cooperation among themselves in order to preserve their own dynamic growth and buffer themselves against the winds of recession and financial volatility emanating from Europe. "The events in Europe are adversely affecting growth in the region," the final communique said. "In such circumstances, we are resolved to work collectively to support growth and foster financial stability, and restore confidence."

They also promised to lower tariffs on environmental goods, enhance regional "food security" – to protect against a feared surge in food prices next year – and step up measures to protect endangered animal species.

Putin meets Clinton

Meeting on the sidelines with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was hopeful that Congress will soon repeal the cold war era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which stands in the way of full trade relations between Russia and the US and has long been a major political irritant as well.

But the inevitable discussion of yawning US-Russia differences over Syria do not seem to have gone well. Russia wants the US to support a transitional deal that might keep embattled Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad in power while a new government, including opposition figures, can be formed. The Russians claim that Ms. Clinton and other Western leaders agreed to this plan at a Geneva meeting in June, and want the US to back it at the upcoming UN General Assembly.

But Clinton told reporters in Vladivostok there was no point in promoting a toothless scheme that Mr. Assad could easily ignore.

"We have to be realistic. We haven't seen eye-to-eye on Syria," with the Russians, she said. "That may continue. And if it does continue then we will work with like-minded states to support the Syrian opposition to hasten the day when Assad falls."