(photo credit: Reuters)
MOSCOW - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed opposition allegations that fraud had helped his ruling party win a parliamentary election and signaled he would not bow to calls at mass protests for the poll to be rerun.
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In his annual televised call-in question-and-answer session he tried to shrug off the significance of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule. Initial reaction on social media suggested many Russians see him as out of touch with his people.
Putin, dressed in a suit and tie behind a desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, looked less at ease than in previous years in an appearance intended to help rebuild his authority before a presidential election in March.
"From my point of view, the result of the (December 4) election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country," Putin said in a show broadcast live to the nation.
"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."
He said it was now significantly easier for the opposition to recruit dissatisfied people to their ranks.
"But United Russia after all retained its leading position, and that's a very good result," he said.
The organizers of the mass protests on Saturday over the allegations of irregularities in the December 4 election and his long rule have made five demands including re-running the election, sacking the election commission head, registering opposition parties and freeing "political prisoners".
But Putin gave no indication he would respond to any of their demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for December 24.
In one gesture to the opposition, he said: "I am proposing and asking for the installation of web cameras at all the polling stations in the country" - an idea voiced at the protest in Moscow that drew tens of thousands on Saturday.
He said demonstrations were "absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law."
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 said that some students were paid to go to the opposition demonstrations, adding: "They will at least make some money."