Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves for his annual Q & A telethon with the Russian public Thursday, offering a four-and-a-half-hour long portrait of a leader who seems supremely confident of his own political future, untroubled by the turmoil over allegations that recent Duma elections were rigged and openly contemptuous of protesters who hit the streets of Moscow and at least 50 other Russian cities last weekend to demand political reforms.
In his tenth televised marathon since becoming Russian president in 2000 – held before a selected Kremlin audience with satellite link-ups to more than a dozen far-flung corners of Russia – Mr. Putin struck his usual magisterial pose, fielding "spontaneous" questions that ranged from relatively trivial matters, like rising electricity bills, to more momentous issues such as the state of Russian democracy, why many Russians are protesting against him and deteriorating relations with the US.
He made it clear from the outset that he will allow no replay of the controversial Duma elections, which have triggered an unprecedented wave of well-documented charges of fraud and vote-rigging on behalf of the ruling United Russia party (UR).
"From my point of view, the result of the Duma election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country," Putin said. "As for the fact that the ruling force, United Russia, lost some ground, there is also nothing unusual about this. As for the fairness or unfairness: The opposition will always say the elections were not fair. Always. This happens everywhere, in all countries."
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A group of opposition parties, citing their own detailed survey of the raw votes cast in polling stations across Russia, said last week that fraud may have amounted to as much as 20 percent of the results and has asked for an objective recount to be carried out. Others, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, argue that the elections were fundamentally flawed, because nine opposition parties were barred from even participating and UR was backed by massive government resources, and propose that the elections should be completely re-staged under fair conditions.
In the subtext of his remarks, Putin made it plain that nothing of that kind is going to happen.
"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."
Putin was asked about Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third richest man and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, who today filed his official candidacy papers to run against Putin for the presidency, in polls slated for March 4. He answered that Mr. Prokhorov will be a "strong candidate", but added that he doesn't wish him success "since I'm running myself."
Prokhorov said that his first act as president would be to free Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil empire who was jailed 8 years ago for challenging Putin politically, and was recently convicted a second time and sentenced to six more years in a Siberian penal colony.
Some experts argue that Prokhorov is really a Kremlin stalking horse, whose purpose is to channel the votes of disgruntled liberals, who wouldn't vote for Putin anyway, into a safe direction.
"Prokhorov's candidacy is just a deal with the Kremlin," says former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Party of People's Freedom, which is banned from fielding a presidential candidate. "No billionaire can run for president in this country without Putin's agreement, and no serious candidate with a chance of winning would be allowed to run. Maybe he'll be rewarded after this with a new party of his own, or some government post," he says.
Turning to foreign affairs, Putin argued that some critics in the West – he singled out Republican senator and former presidential candidate John McCain – cannot accept a strong, independent Russia. "It's Russia some people would like to get rid of," he said "They are still afraid of our nuclear deterrent. We have our own foreign policy whether they like it or not. The West isn't uniform and we have more friends than we have enemies."
"What we saw today is a Putin who is out of touch with society, and can't grasp what's going on. In his view, if people are protesting it's a colored revolution funded by foreigners and not an honest expression of civic discontent," says Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"He projects this image of a guy who is absolutely sure of himself and knows he's doing everything right. So, that's how things stand today."