MOSCOW -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 15 alternately praised and mocked opposition protestors and accused the West of meddling in his country's affairs, as he tried to woo the public with a trademark macho style in his annual televised call-in program.
In the choreographed marathon phone-in broadcast on national television, Putin was in boisterous form, firing off quips to thunderous applause, but he disappointed expectations that he would seek to assuage rising discontent with his rule that has led to mass anti-Kremlin rallies.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst spoke to RFE/RL's Russian service after Putin's broadcast:
“Putin 2.0 did not make an appearance today," he said. "We saw the old Putin, with his old gestures, his old jumping and antics and his old sidestepping difficult questions by discussing the great tasks that lie before us."
Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Putin swaggered onto the podium cheerfully and cut to the chase by immediately talking about the recent antigovernment protests that are thought to signify the awakening of civil society after years of political apathy.
Putin first praised the protests for being peaceful.
“That people want to express their opinion about what is happening in the country and the economic, social and political sphere is an entirely normal thing as long as they adhere to the letter of the law, of course," he said.
"I am counting on it staying that way," he added. "I saw the clips on television of the mainly young, active people formulating their opinion clearly. It pleases me. If this is the result of the Putin regime, then that’s good!”
Ironic Quips And Snide Jokes
But he then followed this up with snide jokes and ironic asides.
Putin quipped that he initially thought that the protesters’ badges of solidarity -- a white ribbon pinned to their lapel -- had been condoms that were part of an anti-AIDS campaign.
He claimed that some protesters were paid to attend the demonstrations and implored others not to be roped in and manipulated by opposition leaders.
Yevgenia Chirikova, a key opposition leader, claimed that Putin’s speech showed he is “laughably” out of touch with people.
Russian opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova
“It’s the beginning of the end," she said. "I’ve been around for quite a while. I’m 35 years old. I remember how, as a little girl, I used to watch my parents as they laughed at [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev’s speeches.
"Well now my two children watch me laughing at Putin’s speeches. The thing is that it must be nearly over. He just simply doesn’t respect us.”
The opposition has demanded that the disputed December 4 elections be annulled and new ones scheduled.
They have also called for the sacking of senior Electoral Commission officials and the relaxing of restrictions that have seen many opposition parties barred from running.
Opposition leaders have threatened to bring more people onto the streets and they hope to assemble 50,000 antigovernment protesters in central Moscow on December 24.
But Putin simply dismissed allegations that election fraud distorted the final results, which handed the United Russia party just under 50 percent despite the party’s precipitous fall in popularity this year.
"Uncomfortable' Political Questions
"In my opinion, the election results unconditionally reflect the real balance of forces in the country," he said. "And the fact that the ruling power, United Russia, has lost some of its support is nothing unusual either. Listen, we've gone through a very complicated period of crisis. Look at what's going on in other countries."
Putin said that cameras would be installed in polling stations to ensure against fraud at the March presidential elections, “so that the country can see -- all this has to be put on the Internet -- what is happening around every ballot box, and thus discourage all claims for falsifications."
Putin also hinted that parties would be allowed to register more freely, although offered no concrete indications of how this would happen.
He also suggested that regional governors would be elected rather than appointed by the Kremlin -- but only after the president had approved candidates proposed by political parties.
Pavel Salin from the independent Center of Political Assessments said that these kinds of responses were typical of a cosmetically improved annual call-in session, but one that still lacked substance.
Salin admitted that previous phone-ins had focused on socioeconomic issues, but that this one broached “uncomfortable” political questions, even if it was ultimately to little avail.
“They changed from the usual script, but they needed to make the second step of convincing people that they are serious about real dialogue and making real concessions," he said.
"They didn’t convince me of this in the slightest. Either he declared extremely half-hearted moves such as what he said about governors, or he simply said things like they are happy to register opposition parties.
"I heard nothing about how they actually intend to do this. So, they made the first step – making cosmetic changes and changing the style of the format, but I was completely unconvinced by the second step – making concessions.”
Trademark Showman Style
Oleg Kozyrev, a blogger close to the opposition movement, wrote on Twitter: "That's it. It's the end. Putin is completely out of touch. And this is becoming more obvious to everyone. You had to think hard to insult the people like this.”
In his trademark showman style, Putin also hit back at Senator John McCain who has commented on Twitter that the Arab Spring uprisings have come to Russia.
“I remind you that he fought in Vietnam! He has people’s blood on his hands," Putin said about McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam where he was tortured. "He likes to see bloody pictures on screens. Just like [the ones shown when] they killed Qaddafi.”
In comments that will trouble supporters of “reset” relations between United States and Russia, Putin said: "Sometimes it seems to me that America does not need allies, it needs vassals."
Putin added that Russia would like to be an ally of the United States but that "people are tired of the dictates of one country."
Asked by the presenter whether he would continue to hold these Q&A sessions if he wins the presidential elections in March, Putin replied “we’ve been meeting for ten years. Of course, we’ll continue this format too.”