President Vladimir Putin on Thursday named a nationalist politician, who drew fire for a 2005 campaign ad that critics said was racist, as Russia's ambassador to NATO, the Kremlin said.
Dmitry Rogozin, a former member of the Russian parliament who headed a nationalist party and is loyal to the Kremlin, replaces Konstantin Totsky.
Amid increasing concerns in recent years over a rise in hate-motivated attacks on minorities, Rogozin has championed the rights of ethnic Russians and organized nationalist demonstrations. His party Rodina, or Homeland, was barred from elections to the Moscow legislature in 2005 after running a campaign spot that appeared to denigrate migrants from the Caucasus. The ad showed a group of dark-haired men eating watermelons, dropping rinds on the ground and ignoring requests to pick them up.
It ended with a voice-over saying "Let us clean our city!" and the election slogan: "Let's clean Moscow of garbage!" With the Kremlin stepping up its public criticism of neo-Nazi groups, however, Rogozin has been careful to avoid direct association with extreme nationalists. He has also built up experience in foreign affairs, serving for a time as chairman of the parliamentary international affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower parliament house, and as Putin's envoy for talks with the European Union on issues relating to Russia's Kaliningrad exclave. The appointment is the latest reflection of Putin's assertive stance toward the West, which he accuses of meddling in Russia's affairs and says must treat Moscow as an equal.
But with relations between Moscow and NATO badly strained there is no indication that the appointment signals a shift in Russian policy toward the alliance.
NATO has angered Russia by expanding into former Warsaw Pact nations and the ex-Soviet Baltic republics. Ties have been further frayed by U.S. plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic and a dispute over the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which governs deployments on the continent. Russia suspended participation in the pact last month, demanding that the United States and other NATO members ratify a revised 1999 version that Moscow says addresses outdated rules that are unfair to Russia.
Putin's choice may have been motivated more by domestic political considerations, providing a prestigious job to a populist politician who has been pushed from the political playing field. Rogozin was in the Duma from 1997 until elections last month. He was forced out as Rodina leader in 2006.