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Putin, in four-hour telethon, sticks to his guns on election (video)

Vladimir Putin projected his usual magisterial image in the appearance, ruling out any recount of the recent election and warning that foreign powers are behind the protesters seeking reform.

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In the subtext of his remarks, Putin made it plain that nothing of that kind is going to happen.

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"Putin is trying to wriggle out of a very complicated situation," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an analyst with the grassroots For Human Rights group in Moscow.

"The whole world and half of the population of Russia did not recognize those election results. The regime has lost its moral legitimacy, and is on the point of losing political and legal legitimacy as well. Russia is sliding into dictatorship....  Putin doesn't see that. But he is fast losing his image as the savior of the country and his reputation as a tough leader; his popularity is collapsing," he says.

Asked about the protests, which erupted onto Moscow streets after the official vote count showed United Russia winning about 50 percent, Putin at first declared that he was "happy" to see Russians exercising their right to free assembly. "I saw on television mostly young, active people clearly expressing their positions... if this is the result of the Putin regime, then this is good."

But a few minutes later, the curtain dropped and Putin returned to his old accusation that protesters are actually paid agents of foreign powers, who are aiming to "destabilize" Russian society through a colored revolution such as those that hit Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the past decade.

"These are people who have Russian passports but who act in the interests of different states, and are funded with foreign money," he said of rally organizers. He went on to suggest that at least some of 30,000 mostly young people who flooded Moscow's Bolotnaya Square last weekend were also paid mercenaries. "I know that students were paid some money; well, that's good if they could earn something," Putin added, with an ironic smile.

Then, in a glimpse of the cruder side that sometimes emerges in Putin, he professed to be baffled by the sight of the white ribbons worn by many protesters as a symbol of their pro-democracy "Winter Revolution."

"I decided that it was an anti-AIDS campaign... that they had pinned on contraceptives, I beg your pardon, only folding them in a strange way," Putin mocked. "I then took a closer look. No. In principle, my first thought was: 'okay, they are fighting for a healthy lifestyle.'"

Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the social democratic Yabloko party which officially won 3 percent of the votes but claims its real tally was higher, says that jibes like that will only alienate young Russians who might yet be won back if Putin were more understanding of, and conciliatory toward, their grievances.

"I personally agree with Putin when he says that the white ribbons are a symbols of the struggle against AIDS. I mean that it is really a symbol of the struggle against political AIDS, against (Putin's authoritarian regime)." says Mr. Mitrokhin. "With this sort of remark, Putin is making the irritation against himself grow. He is losing his popularity even among the people who have been supporting him."

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