For the first time in more than a decade running Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is facing serious opposition to his rule. And that meant he faced tougher than usual questions Thursday at his annual question-and-answer session that lasted more than four hours on Russian television.
"Do you think the elections are honest and their results are fair?" the TV moderator asked him, reading an emailed question.
"The election results absolutely reflect the balance of power in the country," Putin said.
The results from the Dec. 4 elections gave Pruin's ruling United Russia party a slim majority, well down from its showing four years ago. Many critics also say the vote was tainted by fraud. And videos that appear to show ballot box stuffing have gone viral on the internet. This helped drive more than 50,000 protesters on to the streets of Moscow on Saturday.
Putin said that he was pleased if, as a result of "the Putin regime," young people were standing up for their beliefs.
But he also made fun of the white ribbons some wore, comparing them to condoms at an anti-AIDS rally. And he suggested some students were paid to protest.
"I don't think that he's happy to see us there, I am absolutely sure that he's not happy to see us there. And I'm absolutely sure that not one student was paid for going to this protest action," said Marina Ivanova, who was one of the protesters demanding that the elections be re-run. Putin made it clear that isn't going to happen.
"I think that he sounded completely inadequate and I think next time there will be lots of people [protesting]," she said.
More Demonstrations Set
New protests are already planned. For now, Ivanova says she and her young friends are joking on Facebook about some odd words Putin used today — tough sounding slang and an obscure Kipling reference.
During the four and a half hour session, four of the top 10 hashtags trending on Twitter were Russian. Among them — botox. The Internet has been buzzing with speculation that Putin's appearance has changed in recent months.
Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center in Moscow says Putin seemed tired. She says he's in a genuine political crisis, and the crucial moment will be the presidential election in March. Putin is considered the overwhelming favorite.
"Putin may send a message that he's confident and he's the master of the situation, but it's also true that his rating is on the decline and because of rigging in the parliamentary election, people expect rigging in the presidential election as well," Lipman said.
Putin proposed putting web cams in all 90,000 polling stations. He also there could be changes to the way governors are selected. At present, the president appoints them. He also held out the possibility of bringing more parties into the political arena.
But Lipman says the lack of trust means nothing he said today would have changed the opinion of people who have taken to the streets in protest. She says what he did say suggests that given the choice between cracking down or opening up the political system, he has chosen the softer option for now.
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