MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the organizers of 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.
Speaking in a call-in TV show, Putin insisted that 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 good spin on the protests that dented his power and threatened his bid to reclaim presidency in next March's vote by 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.
Last week, Putin dismissed criticism of the vote by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of U.S. efforts to weaken Russia.
Putin on Thursday also alleged that the organizers of Saturday's demonstration by tens of thousands in Moscow had paid some of its participants and had called them sheep. He also unleashed his occasional penchant for barbed and crude remarks by dismissing the white ribbons that many demonstrators wore.
"When I saw them on TV I thought it was part of campaigning for HIV prophylactics, and they put some contraceptives on," he said. The ribbons have become a widely adopted symbol of the protests
The harsh comments and his insistence that the Dec. 4 elections were valid will likely fuel anger and may draw even-bigger crowds in follow-up protests planned for 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, referring to McCain's role as a combat pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"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.
"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 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, speaking in a national call-in 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 that has taken its toll on the country.
United Russia 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 that even that result was inflated by ballot-stuffing and other violations.
Putin brushed off the vote fraud claims as part of the opposition's struggle for power, and said that any complaints should go to the courts. He alleged that some of the 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 that the vote results genuinely reflected the people's will.
Putin also sought a positive spin on last weekend's protest against vote fraud, that drew tens of thousands in the greatest challenge to his dozen years in power, saying he was glad to see a rise in public activity as a result of his rule.
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.
He sought to counter public discontent with the alleged fraud on Thursday by proposing 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.
The opposition is calling for an annulment of the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, and the holding of a new vote. Putin's insistence that the election was valid indicates no immediate resolution to the political tensions is in sight.
The opposition has been energized by the huge turnout at the Moscow protest and simultaneous rallies in some 60 other cities. It has also sensed new weakness in United Russia that has also dented Putin's power.