Putin derides protestors as Kremlin reshuffles team

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday belittled Russia's protest movement and rejected a review of parliamentary polls as the Kremlin shook up its team in the wake of mass opposition rallies.

In his first comments since the biggest demonstration against his 12-year domination of Russia was held Saturday in Moscow, Putin said firmly he had no intention of reviewing the results of contested December 4 legislative polls.

"They have no united programme, clear ways of reaching their aims -- which are themselves not clear -- or people who could achieve something concrete," Putin said of the opposition leaders.

"I have difficulty imagining who from their ranks could do concrete work for the development of our state," Putin told a meeting of his All-Russian Popular Front that rallies support for him.

Bluntly ruling out the protesters' main demand for a re-run of a State Duma poll that the ruling United Russia party narrowly won amid allegations of fraud, Putin said the call had no merit.

"The elections are over. The parliament has started its work and a speaker elected. The State Duma is working. ... There can be no talk of any review," Putin said.

But Putin, who plans to retake the Kremlin seat he held in 2000-08 in March 4 presidential elections, stressed the need to erase any "insinuations" that he himself planned to assume power through fraud.

"I, as one of the candidates, need no tricks. I want to have the will of the people and their trust. Without that there is no point in working," he added.

His comments were soon followed by news of a major shake-up in the Kremlin administration, where the powerful strategist credited with designing Russia's "managed democracy" system was replaced as first deputy chief of staff.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who plans to take over the premiership from Putin after the March election, said he was appointing Vladislav Surkov as a deputy prime minister in charge of modernising the economy.

The Kommersant daily quoted a government source as saying that the appointment represented a "sidelining" of Surkov from domestic politics in the light of the mass protests.

"This is the end of an era," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading expert on the Russian elite, told AFP.

The Kremlin administration received a new boss this week with the appointment of old Putin ally Sergei Ivanov, in a sign that Russia's two leaders were installing their own teams ahead of their expected job swap.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Moscow on Saturday for the second mass demonstration in an action that was both bigger and more directly aimed against Putin than the first protest on December 10.

Alexei Navalny -- a lawyer who won prominence with investigations of state corruption and became one of the figureheads of the anti-Putin movement -- said he would be prepared to challenge Putin in fair elections.

Navalny can no longer register for the presidential ballot because the deadline expired earlier this month but he told Moscow Echo radio in an interview he would challenge Putin if the elections were fair.

"When we get a chance to take part in elections, I am ready to fight for leading positions, including in the presidential vote," Navalny said.

But a poll by the independent Levada Centre of participants at Saturday's rally found serious splits in their ranks about who could possibly challenge Putin as head of state.

Just 22 percent said they would vote for Navalny as president, with the veteran liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky closely trailing him with 21 percent.

The leaders of the protest movement have not yet said when the next demonstration will take place but they have indicated it will not be before the end of the New Year holidays in mid-January.

However huge anger has been sparked by an additional 10-day jail sentence handed to Sergei Udaltsov, an ultra-left-wing activist who had already served a term in prison for taking part in a rally earlier this month.

More than 1,700 people have vowed on Facebook to attend a rally on Thursday in Moscow's Pushkin Square "for the release and life of Udaltsov and all political prisoners" amid growing concerns over his health.

© 2011 AFP

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