Putin mocks Russia protestors, rejects demands
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday he was untroubled by a protest wave that shook his 12-year domination of Russia but ruthlessly mocked the opposition and rejected claims of election rigging.
In his annual phone-in session, Putin sought to show his strongman image was intact despite rallies alleging fraud in parliamentary polls that have posed an unexpected challenge ahead of his planned return to the Kremlin in 2012.
He poked fun at the white ribbon that the protestors have used as their symbol -- saying he thought it was part of an anti-AIDS campaign -- and alleged that some had been paid by the United States.
"I saw on television mostly young, active people clearly expressing their position. I am pleased to see this," Putin said in his first reaction to the demonstrations over the December 4 polls.
"And if this is the result of the Putin regime, then this is good. I see nothing extraordinary about it."
Referring to the white ribbons, he said, "I decided that it was an anti-AIDS campaign... that they pinned on contraceptives, I beg your pardon, only folding them in a strange way."
Tens of thousands demonstrated on Saturday in Moscow in Russia's biggest show of popular discontent since the turbulent 1990s, appearing to show the once invincible support of Putin was on the wane.
Putin -- who last week accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of encouraging the Russian opposition -- also alleged that some of the demonstrators were hired to protest against the government.
"I know that students were paid some money -- well, that's good if they could earn something," he said.
Putin -- who now faces three tricky months to shore up his support before the March presidential elections -- warned protestors that "Allowing yourself to get sucked into any kind of scheme to destabilise society is incorrect and unacceptable."
The opposition is planning a new protest in Moscow on December 24 to call for the invalidation of the election results that it predicts will again attract tens of thousands.
Putin expressed regret over the fall of the Soviet Union, saying its leaders should have fought "consistently, fearlessly and steadfastly" to save it, and talked up the stability he brought to Russia after the chaos of the 1990s.
Putin also brushed off an incident when he was whistled by the crowd after stepping into the ring after a no-holds barred fight in November, saying "this noise could have been caused by all sorts of things" and he took no offence.
But he admitted light-heartedly that the grapple fans could have been perturbed by his face, "which is already on television all the time."
Putin's ruling United Russia party won the parliamentary elections but with less than half the vote -- a result far weaker than previous years but which the opposition said would have been far worse had the polls been free.
But with the new State Duma lower house of parliament due to meet next week, Putin insisted that the results were realistic and said the opposition's claims of fraud were predictable.
"In my opinion, the result of these elections unquestionably reflects the real political make-up of the country," said Putin.
"As for the fairness or unfairness: the opposition will always say the elections were not fair. Always. This happens everywhere, in all countries."
But in an apparent bid to calm the situation, Putin ordered the installation of web cameras in every Russian polling station.
"I ask the central election commission to install web cameras in all 90,000 polling stations in the country and put the footage on the Internet so the whole country can see," he said.
In a sign that his foreign policy may get even tougher, Putin accused US drones and special forces of involvement in the killing of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and launched an extraordinary personal attack on US Senator John McCain.
Veteran McCain -- a regular Kremlin critic -- already has "enough blood of peaceful citizens on his hands," he charged.
The audience in the snazzy blue and white studio inside the Gostiny Dvor conference centre featured prominent figures ranging from Mariinsky Theatre chief Valery Gergiev to surgeon Leonid Roshal who lavished praise on Putin.
President Dmitry Medvedev -- who is stepping aside for Putin to return to the Kremlin after just one term in office -- was barely mentioned throughout the marathon four-hour discussion.
© 2011 AFP