In his annual televised call-in question-and-answer session he brushed off the importance of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule and, while holding out the prospect of relaxing his tight control on the political system, ignored most of the protesters’ demands.
Reaction on the social network Twitter suggested Putin came across as out of touch and, dressed in a suit and tie at a large desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, he looked less at ease than in previous years. “From my point of view, the result of the [parliamentary] election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country,” Putin said in the show, which was broadcast live to the nation and was still going after more than three hours. “As for the fact that the ruling force, United Russia, lost some ground, there is also nothing unusual about this. Listen, we have gone through a very difficult period of crisis, and look at what is happening in other countries.”
The former KGB spy presented himself as a reasonable, even-handed national leader during the call-in, which was intended to boost his popularity from a low ebb since he announced plans to reclaim the presidency in an election next March.
The organizers of rallies which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets on Saturday over the allegations of electoral fraud want the Dec. 4 poll rerun, the election commission head dismissed, opposition parties registered and “political prisoners” freed. Putin hinted at liberalizing the political system by letting regional governors be popularly elected — through only after approval by the president — and suggested legislation might be changed to allow small opposition parties to be registered. “We can move in this direction,” Putin said in response to a question about a liberal opposition party, whose leaders include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, which was barred from the election. But he gave no indication he would respond to any of their other main demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests and hoping they fade, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for on Dec. 24. He said demonstrations were “absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law.”
“I saw on people on the TV screens … mostly young people, active and with positions that they expressed clearly,” Putin said. “This makes me happy, and if that is the result of the Putin regime, that’s good — there’s nothing bad about it.”
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.”Putin said that at first he thought that the white ribbons which were worn by the protesters a sign of dissent were a sign of an anti-AIDS campaign, and he had mistaken them for condoms. He also alleged students were paid to go to the opposition demonstrations, adding: “They will at least make some money.” The protest organizers had already accused Putin this week of ignoring their demands and his comments went down badly among many people on Twitter.