Old habits die hard in marathon Putin phone-in
Despite the protests that have swept Russia, television viewers on Thursday saw a familiar Vladimir Putin who disparaged opposition, lambasted the West and told racy jokes.
Presenting his trademark strongman image, Putin said his critics were Western stooges and bizarrely suggested he first thought the white ribbons protesters pinned to their chests were part of an anti-AIDS campaign.
But in a marked departure from previous editions of his annual phone-in with Russians, state-controlled television did not seek to shield Putin from critical questions.
The anchor on the four-hour session -- entitled "Vladimir Putin. A Conversation. Continued" -- even read out a text message that referred to a recent martial arts fight at which Putin was booed.
A woman phoning from Murmansk asked him why opposition parties had not been registered.
Putin, who is planning to win back the presidency in March presidential polls, is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his 12-year rule after the opposition accused his ruling party of cheating its way to a slim majority in parliamentary polls this month.
The rare show of public anger culminated in a series of protests across the country over the weekend, and the next protest in Moscow is being planned for December 24.
Putin sought to take all the negative criticism in his stride, saying he was pleased if the recent rallies by young protesters were the result of the "Putin regime."
But in the same breath he sought to make light of the rallies and humiliated their participants, quipping that he first thought the white ribbons worn by Russian protesters as a symbol of their demonstrations against his rule were condoms in an anti-AIDS campaign.
"My first thought was: "okay, they are fighting for a healthy lifestyle. It's especially important for the young," Putin quipped, drawing laughter from the conference hall packed to bursting with his supporters like billionaire Alisher Usmanov and film director Nikita Mikhalkov.
Putin received an unexpectedly frank show of support from a factory worker from the town of Nizhny Tagil who promised to bring his friends to Moscow to help quell the protests.
"If our police cannot work and cannot cope then me and my mates are ready to also come out and ensure stability," he said. "Of course, within the framework of the law."
Putin claimed he did not know if the Kremlin of Dmitry Medvedev was rattled by the unexpectedly large protests in the immediate aftermath of the elections because he was learning to play ice hockey at the time.
He went on to play down his skills at the sport, saying he was like a "cow on the ice."
Emphasising his calm despite the drama of the last 10 days, Putin even went as far as to claim he was "amused" by the expletive-ridden pictures of spoiled ballot papers which insulted him.
"A new Putin is not happening," said analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. "He is trying to copy Berlusconi's earthy style but people are getting tired of this racy talk. People no longer trust him."
As in the past nine years, Putin used the stage-managed performance to field questions from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to flaunt his charisma as he imparted his opinions on everything from child adoption to bread-and-butter issues.
Other analysts noted that Putin made attempts to respond to criticism that his carefully-constructed political system was too centralised.
He admitted that a return to direct elections of governors he abolished during his previous term in the Kremlin was possible but only if the president screened their candidacies first.
"The changes are noticeable," said analyst Yury Korgunyuk with Indem think tank. "The image of a brutal alfa male has started irritating people."
© 2011 AFP