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Vladimir Putin mocks Moscow protesters, says they were paid

In 4.5-hour live TV show, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he thought protest ribbons were condoms. Putin also suggested Moscow street protesters were paid to be there.

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A 21-year-old trainee lawyer who gave his name only as Yevgeny said in the city of Yekaterinburg: "He did not even show any interest in what people were saying ... Aliens have nothing in common with earthlings."

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Many of the people at rallies over alleged electoral fraud are young professionals in big cities who have answered online calls to protest and want the political system opened up to include a liberal opposition reflecting their views.

Some of their allegations were backed by international vote monitors who said the Dec. 4 election was slanted to favour Putin's United Russia party, although it won only a slim majority in the lower house of parliament.

Many Russians saw an announcement by Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on Sept. 24 that they planned to swap jobs as a sign that everything had been cooked up between them with no respect for democracy. Putin confirmed on Thursday he wanted Medvedev to become premier after the March election.

Putin sought to appear democratic and unconcerned about the protests by saying they were "absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law."

"From my point of view, the result of the election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country," he said, making clear there would be no election rerun.

But at another point, he turned to the journalist hosting the call-in and said: "I've had enough of these questions about the elections."

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Russia-based economists said Putin was clearly having to work harder than in previous years to maintain his credibility and doubted he had won any new support in his performance.

"He's not winning any fresh votes. He didn't say anything to win the votes of the other crowd (of opponents) - he could have used this big event to push forward his rating," said Alexey Bachurin, of Renaissance Capital investment bank.

Putin has used the annual call-in he has held for the past decade to burnish his image as a strong leader with a detailed knowledge of the country and an interest in all its people. Thursday's show was the longest yet, beating out last year's by five minutes.

As usual there were many questions about social issues such as healthcare, pensions and housing, and Putin suggested he was the single leader capable of uniting and maintaining stability in the world's biggest energy producer.

As often in the past, he had strong words for the West, and particularly former Cold War enemy the United States.

"The United States does not need allies, it needs vassals," he said.

He defended his economic record, saying there had been some "remarkable and meaningful" achievements such as reducing poverty, despite the global economic crisis of 2008-09.

He hinted that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is held in high regard by foreign investors and many young professionals, could return to government after falling out with the Kremlin in September.

"Such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments," he said of Kudrin, who has spoken recently of forming a liberal party and suggested he might join protests.

(Reporting by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Douglas Busvine)

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