Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has kept silent since the nationwide protests started 10 days ago. On Thursday, he addressed the protests during 4 1/2-hour long telephone call-in show.
During the marathon session, Putin signaled that he will allow the protest movement to continue, but repeatedly heaped ridicule on the protesters.
He said some protesters were paid, that their leaders call them ‘sheep,' and that protest organizers have Russian passports “but act in the interest of foreign states and foreign money.”
The prime minister said when he watched videos of the protesters, he was initially confused by the white ribbons pinned on their chests, thinking they signaled an anti-Aids campaign and that they were actually condoms “only folded in a strange way.” Protesters said they wear folded white ribbons to symbolize their desire for peaceful, non-revolutionary change in Russia.
The protests erupted 10 days ago after parliamentary elections were marred by widespread fraud accusations. Officially, the ruling party won just over half the seats in parliament. Opposition leaders say that, without fraud, Putin’s party would have won one-third of the seats.
At the start of the call-in show, Russia’s veteran leader stressed that political losers always cry fraud.
"As for the fairness or unfairness: the opposition will always say the elections were not fair. Always," he said, speaking on national television. "This happens everywhere in all countries."
In a concession to fraud complaints, Putin ordered Russian courts to “energetically and objectively” pursue credible cases. Offering greater transparency for presidential elections in March, he proposed installing web cameras in all 90,000 voting stations in Russia.
He also promised that if he loses those elections, he will resign office immediately, ending 12 years as Russia’s leader.
But he showed no sign today of losing his appetite for the political fight.
In a clear bid to win votes, he said he would resist raising Russia’s pension age, that he would raise police salaries to cut bribe taking, and that he might create a “Ministry of Ethnicities” to address Russia’s multicultural character. Loosening controls on Russia’s top down political system, he called for direct elections for governors and for the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament.
In another bid for votes, Putin repeatedly played the anti-American card, bitterly attacking U.S. Senator John McCain, who tweeted last week that the Arab Spring is coming to Moscow.
“This was said about Russia, not me," he said. "Some want to move Russia aside so that it does not stand in the way of those wanting to rule the globe.”
Russia’s leader then charged that American special forces ordered Libyan guerrilla fighters to kill Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader. A Pentagon spokesman in Iraq dismissed the charge as ‘ludicrous,’ saying there were no American boots on the ground during Libya’s civil war.
Speaking on the day that the United States formally ended its war role in Iraq, Putin said “American society no longer wants to be a world gendarme.”
Judging by Twitter and Facebook reactions, Russia’s internet generation did not like the prime minister's call-in show. While he spoke, the number of people pledging on a Facebook page to attend the next major rally steadily increased, hitting 22,000.
Thursday evening, as Putin’s motorcade raced out of central Moscow, the horn blowing by drivers stuck in traffic seemed louder than usual.