Putin 'happy' with protests
Moscow - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed opposition allegations that fraud had helped his ruling party win a parliamentary election and signalled he would not bow to calls at mass protests for the poll to be rerun.
In his annual televised call-in question-and-answer session he brushed off the importance of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule and, while holding out the prospect of relaxing his tight control on the political system, ignored most of the protesters' demands.
Reaction on the social network Twitter suggested Putin came across as out of touch and, dressed in a suit and tie at a large desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, he looked less at ease than in previous years.
"From my point of view, the result of the (parliamentary) election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country," Putin said in the show, which was broadcast live to the nation and was still going after more than three hours.
"As for the fact that the ruling force, United Russia, lost some ground, there is also nothing unusual about this. Listen, we have gone through a very difficult period of crisis, and look at what is happening in other countries."
Hints at liberalising govt
The former KGB spy presented himself as a reasonable, even-handed national leader during the call-in, which was intended to boost his popularity from a low ebb since he announced plans to reclaim the presidency in an election next March.
The organisers of rallies which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets on Saturday over the allegations of electoral fraud want the December 4 poll rerun, the election commission head dismissed, opposition parties registered and "political prisoners" freed.
Putin hinted at liberalising the political system by letting regional governors be popularly elected - through only after approval by the president - and suggested legislation might be changed to allow small opposition parties to be registered.
"We can move in this direction," Putin said in response to a question about a liberal opposition party, whose leaders include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, which was barred from the election.
But he gave no indication he would respond to any of their other main demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests and hoping they fade, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for on December 24.
‘Protests make me happy’
He said demonstrations were "absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law".
"I saw on people on the TV screens ... mostly young people, active and with positions that they expressed clearly," Putin said. "This makes me happy, and if that is the result of the Putin regime, that's good - there's nothing bad about it."
But at another point, he turned to the journalist hosting the call-in and said: "I've had enough of these questions about the elections."
Putin said that at first he thought that the white ribbons which were worn by the protesters a sign of dissent were a sign of an anti-Aids campaign, and he had mistaken them for condoms.
He also alleged students were paid to go to the opposition demonstrations, adding: "They will at least make some money."
Out of touch?
The protest organisers had already accused Putin this week of ignoring their demands and his comments went down badly among many people on Twitter.
"That's it. It's the end. Putin is completely out of touch. And this is becoming more obvious to everyone. You had to think hard to insult the people like this," wrote one person who identified himself as Oleg Kozyrev.
Russia-based economists said Putin was clearly having to work harder than in previous years to maintain his credibility but doubted he had won any new support in his performance.
"He's not winning any fresh votes. He didn't say anything to win the votes of the other crowd (of opponents) - he could have used this big event to push forward his rating," said Alexey Bachurin, of Renaissance Capital investment bank.
Putin, 59, has used the annual call-in to burnish his image as a strong leader with a detailed knowledge of the country and an interest in all its people. Questions have usually focused on social issues such as healthcare, pensions and housing.
Defending his economic record, he said: "We have many unresolved issues, but nevertheless some remarkable and meaningful things have been done in recent years.
"Over 10 years we have cut the number of people who live below the poverty line two-fold."
He hinted that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is held in high regard by foreign investors, could return to high office by saying: "Such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments."
But Putin was under much more pressure at this year's call-in following the large protests over the election, which international monitors said was slanted to favour United Russia, although it won only a slim majority in the lower house.
Many protesters have also called for an end to Putin's rule and are wary of his plans to return to the presidency, a post he held from 2000 until 2008, fearing it would mean a new era of political and economic stagnation.
Many Russians saw the announcement on September 24 that he planned to swap jobs with Medvedev as a signal that everything had been cooked up between them with no respect for democracy.
Many dislike the tightly controlled political system he has created around himself, and the protesters, many of whom are relatively well-off and well-educated city dwellers, want a mainstream liberal party created to reflect their views.
Putin, who built up a rugged image with stunts such as riding a horse bare-chested, is still expected to win the presidential election next year but he now faces much more resistance than expected.
The protests have been organised on social networking sites, and state television has shown some footage of the protests but has not included criticism of the former KGB spy.