Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected opposition calls for a rerun of the parliamentary election, accusing those who organized massive protests against vote fraud of working to weaken Russia at the West's behest.
In blustery remarks likely to further fuel anger against his 12-year rule, Putin insisted the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, which drew allegations of fraud and triggered the largest protests in Russia in 20 years, was a genuine reflection of the people's will. He sought to put a positive spin on the protests that dented his power and threatened his bid to reclaim presidency in next March's vote, saying they reflected a rise in public activity that he welcomes.
But in a characteristic move, he accused protest organizers of working to destabilize the country on orders from the West.
“That's a well-organized pattern of destabilizing society,” Putin said in a call-in TV show.
Last week, Putin dismissed criticism of the vote by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of U.S. efforts to weaken Russia.
“They still fear our nuclear potential,” he said. “We also carry an independent foreign policy, and, of course, it's an impediment for some.”
Previous editions of the annual national call-in show have been largely an opportunity for Putin to brag for hours about improvements in the country, but this one was unusually confrontational. Both callers and studio participants repeatedly raised questions about the election, the anti-fraud protests and the country's repression of opposition groupings.
In the vote, Putin's United Russia party lost about 20 percent of its seats in the election and no longer has the two-thirds majority that allowed it to change constitution at will in the previous parliament. It barely retained a majority in the State Duma, and opposition parties and some vote monitors said even that result was inflated by ballot-stuffing and other violations.
The opposition is calling for the parliamentary election to be annulled and rerun. Putin's insistence the election was valid indicates no immediate resolution to Russia's political tensions is in sight.
The unprecedented wave of protest poses a significant challenge to Putin less than three months before presidential elections in which he seeks to return to the Kremlin.
Putin alleged the organizers of Saturday's demonstration by tens of thousands in Moscow had paid some participants, calling them sheep. He also unleashed his occasional penchant for dismissive and earthy remarks, when asked about the white ribbons that have been adopted by many as a protest symbol.
Putin said when he saw the protest footage on television, he thought the demonstrators “put some condoms” on their sleeves to promote safe sex.
The harsh comments and his insistence that the Dec. 4 election was valid will likely fuel anger and may draw even bigger crowds for protests later this month.
Putin also lashed out at U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded him with a Twitter post saying “the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you.”
“He has the blood of peaceful civilians on his hands, and he can't live without the kind of disgusting, repulsive scenes like the killing of Gadhafi,” Putin said, referring to McCain's role as a combat pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“Mr. McCain was captured and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years,” he said. “Anyone (in his place) would go nuts.”
Putin said the results of Russia's parliamentary election properly reflected the people's will, and that the opposition had alleged vote fraud purely to strengthen its position.
“The results of this election undoubtedly reflect the real balance of power in the country,” he said on the TV show. “It's very good that United Russia has preserved its leading position.”
He added that a drop in support for his party was a natural result of the global financial crisis of 2008, which has taken its toll on Russians.
Putin brushed off the vote fraud claims as part of the opposition's maneuvering ahead of the presidential election, and said any complaints should go to the courts. He alleged that some protest leaders have been acting at Western behest to weaken Russia.
“The opposition goal's is to fight for power, and it's looking for every chance to advance,” he said, insisting the vote results genuinely reflected the people's will.
The opposition has been energized by the huge Moscow protest and simultaneous rallies in some 60 other cities. It also senses a new weakness in United Russia — blamed for a good amount of the corruption that plagues Russia — that has dented Putin's power.
Putin sought to counter public discontent with the alleged fraud by proposing Thursday to place web cameras at each of Russia's more than 90,000 polling stations by the March 4 presidential vote.
“Let them be there next to every ballot box to avoid any falsifications,” he said.
Asked about the presidential bid by one of Russia's richest tycoons, Mikhail Prokhorov, Putin said he would welcome a strong competitor. The 46-year-old Prokhorov, estimated to be worth $18 billion, made his fortune in metals, banking and media. He also owns 80 percent in the New Jersey Nets.
Prokhorov said Thursday that his first move if elected will be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003 on tax evasion and fraud charges widely seen as a punishment for defying Putin's power. Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man.
Prokhorov also vowed to allow free registration of opposition parties and restore popular elections of provincial governors if he wins the March vote.
Putin has marginalized opposition forces, tightened election rules and abolished direct elections of governors.
Putin defended those moves as necessary to prevent criminal clans and separatist forces from dominating the gubernatorial elections, but suggested that he may allow their election in the future. He said candidates for governors still should be nominated by the president, but could then be put to a direct popular vote.
Nataliya Vasiyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.