MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has sent New Year's greetings to all Russians, though with some sarcasm toward those protesting his 12 years in power and his plans to return to the presidency for at least six more years.
Putin on Saturday wished well-being and prosperity "to all our citizens regardless of their political persuasion, including those who sympathize with leftist forces and those situated on the right, below, above, however you like." In Russian, the sexual innuendo was clear.
Putin often uses crude language, especially when speaking derisively of his critics. His tough talk and the street slang that peppers his speeches have helped build his image as a man of the people.
His sarcasm toward the protesters backfired recently when he said the white ribbons they wear as an emblem looked like condoms. The protesters took their revenge at the next mass demonstration, where they held up a poster of Putin with his head wrapped in a scarf-like condom and another showing Putin and a condom with the words: "Attention! Not for re-use."
Putin, who was first elected president in 2000 and remained in charge after moving into the prime minister's seat in 2008, intends to reclaim the presidency in a March election.
Many Russians, especially young professionals in Moscow and other cities, have grown weary of Putin, who has squeezed out all political competition in centralizing his control and has allowed corruption to flourish.
Blatant vote manipulation in a Dec. 4 parliamentary election that helped Putin's party hang onto its majority caused widespread outrage and set off a wave of protests. Two demonstrations in December drew tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. A third demonstration has been set for Feb. 4.
Putin's return to the Kremlin still seems certain, but he is under pressure to show he can win an election that is free and fair.
Putin portrays himself as the guarantor of Russia's stability, a theme he hit again in Saturday's address. He warned of the threat posed by the global economic crisis and noted that under his leadership Russia remains an "islet of stability."
President Dmitry Medvedev later gave the formal New Year's address and was more conciliatory toward the Kremlin's opponents.
"Yes, we are all different, but this is precisely where our strength lies, as well as in our ability to listen to, understand and respect one another, to overcome any difficulties and achieve success," he said in a prerecorded address broadcast at midnight across Russia's nine time zones.
Throughout his presidency, Medvedev has been the more liberal voice within Russia's leadership, but he has remained subordinate to Putin.
Putin has so far shown little interest in talking to the protesters, something he is now being urged to do by his former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who has offered to serve as an intermediary. Kudrin, who is close to Putin, said on Twitter that he met Saturday with two of the protest leaders.
Medvedev noted that 20 years ago, less than a week after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russians were proud to celebrate the New Year in a country called Russia.
"Our duty is to preserve it and build a progressive state, where all of us can live comfortably and do stimulating work," he said.