MOSCOW (AP) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday vehemently rejected opposition calls for a rerun of the parliamentary election, accusing those who organized massive protests against vote fraud of working to weaken Russia at the West's behest.
In blustery remarks likely to further fuel anger against his 12-year rule, Mr. Putin insisted that the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, which drew allegations of fraud and triggered the largest protests in Russia in 20 years, was a genuine reflection of the people's will. He also put a positive spin on the protests, which dented his power and threatened his bid to reclaim the presidency in a March 4 vote, saying they reflected a rise in public activity that he welcomes.
"The results of this election undoubtedly reflect the real balance of power in the country," Mr. Putin said on a marathon TV show that lasted 4½ hours. "It's very good that United Russia has preserved its leading position."
Yet in a characteristic move, he accused protest organizers of working to destabilize the country on orders from the West. "That's a well-organized pattern of destabilizing society," Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin's comments came on the same day that his most notable competitor, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, announced that his first move if elected would be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky has been in prison since 2003 on tax evasion and fraud charges widely seen as a punishment for defying Mr. Putin's power.
Speaking in the Russian capital with supporters, Mr. Prokhorov hailed last weekend's massive protest in Moscow against vote fraud.
"I deeply understand the demands and the strivings of the people who took to the streets," Mr. Prokhorov told reporters, adding that he may join a follow-up protest later this month.
The 46-year-old Mr. Prokhorov, estimated to be worth $18 billion, made his fortune in metals, banking and media. He also owns 80 percent in the New Jersey Nets.
Asked about Mr. Prokhorov's presidential bid, Mr. Putin said he would welcome a strong competitor. He also added he would consider Khodorkovsky's plea for a pardon if he submits one.
Previous editions of the annual national call-in show have been largely an opportunity for Mr. Putin to brag for hours about improvements in the country, but this one was unusually confrontational. Both callers and studio participants repeatedly raised questions about the election, the anti-fraud protests and the repression of opposition groups.
In the election, Mr. Putin's United Russia party lost about 20 percent of its seats and no longer has the two-thirds majority that previously allowed it to change the constitution at will. It barely retained a majority in the State Duma, and opposition parties and some vote monitors say even that result was inflated by ballot-stuffing and other violations.
The opposition is calling for the parliamentary election to be annulled and rerun. Mr. Putin's insistence that the election was valid indicates that no solution to Russia's political tensions is immediately in sight.
"Putin still doesn't understand what's going on in the country and who are these people coming out into the streets. He is continuing to use demagoguery and cynically denigrate the citizens, their rights and freedom," Mikhail Kasyanov, his former prime minister who now has become a top opposition figure, was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.
In the week after the election, Mr. Putin dismissed criticism of the vote by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as part of U.S. efforts to weaken Russia.
"They still fear our nuclear potential," he said Thursday. "We also carry an independent foreign policy, and, of course, it's an impediment for some."
The rift over the elections revealed deep cracks in U.S.-Russian relations despite President Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia. Mr. Putin said Moscow would like to develop cooperation with Washington, but he harshly criticized U.S. foreign policy, accusing it of unilateralism.
"America doesn't need allies, it only needs vassals," Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin alleged that the organizers of Saturday's demonstration by tens of thousands in Moscow had paid some participants and publicly referred to them as sheep. Unleashing his penchant for dismissive and earthy remarks, Mr. Putin derided the white ribbons that have been adopted as a protest symbol, saying he thought demonstrators had "put some condoms" on their sleeves to promote safe sex.
The harsh comments and his insistence that the Dec. 4 election was valid likely will fuel anger and may produce even bigger crowds for upcoming protests. The number of people who signed up on Facebook to go to the Dec. 24 rally increased from 18,000 to 21,500 just in the hours Mr. Putin was speaking.
One of Russia's most-read bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, who took part in Saturday's rally, was disappointed with Mr. Putin's dismissal of protesters as paid agents of the West.
"Instead of unifying the nation and looking for opportunities to start a discussion, we still see the same Soviet 'witch hunt,' which means searching for enemies who go to protests because they've been paid," he wrote in his blog.
Mr. Putin said the results of Russia's parliamentary election properly reflected the people's will, adding that the drop in support for his party was a natural result of the global financial crisis of 2008. He brushed off vote-fraud claims as part of the opposition's maneuvering ahead of the presidential election, and said any complaints should go to the courts.
"The opposition goal's is to fight for power, and it's looking for every chance to advance," he said.
The opposition has been energized by the huge Moscow protest and simultaneous rallies in some 60 other cities. It also senses a new weakness in United Russia — blamed for a good amount of the corruption that plagues Russia — that has dented Mr. Putin's power.
Mr. Putin sought to counter public discontent by proposing Thursday to place Web cameras at each of Russia's more than 90,000 polling stations by the presidential vote.
"Let them be there next to every ballot box to avoid any falsifications," he said.
He said he sees the presidential election as the only real test of his popularity, saying that "it's not determined on websites or on squares."
"If I see I don't have such support, I will not remain in my chair for a single day," he vowed.
For his part, Mr. Prokhorov also vowed to allow free registration of opposition parties and restore popular elections of provincial governors if he wins the March vote.
Mr. Putin has marginalized opposition forces, tightened election rules and abolished direct elections of governors. He has defended those moves as necessary to prevent criminal clans and separatist forces from dominating the gubernatorial elections, but he suggested he may allow their election in the future. He said candidates for governors still should be nominated by the president but then could be put to a direct popular vote.
For the first time, Mr. Putin referred publicly to the humiliating catcalls that greeted him at a sports arena last month, saying the audience might have been reacting to the mixed martial arts fight there, not his appearance.
In another promise to voters, Mr. Putin said President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to permanently switch the nation to a summer time can be reviewed. The move left Russians trudging to work in the morning in complete darkness, angering many.
Mr. Putin also lashed out at U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded him with a Twitter post saying that "the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
"He has a lot of blood of peaceful civilians on his hands. He must relish and can't live without the disgusting, repulsive scenes of the killing of Gadhafi," Mr. Putin said, referring to Mr. McCain's role as a combat pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"Mr. McCain was captured in Vietnam, and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years," Mr. Putin added. "Anyone (in his place) would go nuts."
Mr. McCain responded Thursday with another tweet: "Dear Vlad, is it something I said?"
Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.