Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed opposition allegations that fraud had helped his ruling party win a parliamentary election and signalled he would not bow to calls at mass protests for the poll to be rerun.
In his annual televised call-in question-and-answer session he tried to shrug off the significance of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule. Initial reaction on social media suggested many Russians see him as out of touch with his people.
Putin, dressed in a suit and tie behind a desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, looked less at ease than in previous years in an appearance intended to help rebuild his authority before a presidential election in March.
From my point of view, the result of the (December 4) election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country, Putin said in a show broadcast live to the nation.
As for the fact that the ruling force, United Russia, lost some ground, there is also nothing unusual about this. Listen, we have gone through a very difficult period of crisis, and look at what is happening in other countries.
He said it was now significantly easier for the opposition to recruit dissatisfied people to their ranks.
But United Russia after all retained its leading position, and that's a very good result, he said.
The organisers of the mass protests on Saturday over the allegations of irregularities in the December 4 election and his long rule have made five demands including rerunning the election, sacking the election commission head, registering opposition parties and freeing political prisoners.
But Putin gave no indication he would respond to any of their demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for December 24.
In one gesture to the opposition, he said: I am proposing and asking for the installation of web cameras at all the polling stations in the country -- an idea voiced at the protest in Moscow that drew tens of thousands on Saturday.
He said demonstrations were absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law.
But at another point, he turned to the journalist hosting the call-in and said: I've had enough of these questions about the elections.
Putin said that at first he thought that the white ribbons which were worn by the protesters a sign of dissent were a sign of an anti-AIDS campaign, and he had mistaken them for condoms.
He also said that some students were paid to go to the opposition demonstrations, adding: They will at least make some money.
OUT OF TOUCH?
The reception to his comments was largely negative on the social networking site Twitter.
That's it. It's the end. Putin is completely out of touch. And this is becoming more obvious to everyone. You had to think hard to insult the people like this, wrote one person who identified himself as Oleg Kozyrev.
Putin, 59, has used the annual call-in to burnish his image as a strong, effective and caring leader with a detailed knowledge of the country and an interest in each of its citizens. Questions have usually focused on social issues such as healthcare, pensions and housing.
Defending his economic record, he said: We have many unresolved issues, but nevertheless some remarkable and meaningful things have been done in recent years.
Over 10 years we have cut the number of people who live below the poverty line twofold. Today it is 12.5 percent ... now this parameter is even more modest that in European countries, he said.
But Putin was under much more pressure at this year's call-in following the protests by tens of thousands of people over the election, which international monitors said was slanted to favour his United Russia.
Many protesters have also called for an end to Putin's rule and are wary of his plans to return to the presidency, a post he led from 2000 until 2008, fearing it would mean a new era of political and economic stagnation.
United Russia won just under half the votes, enough to have a slim majority in the State Duma lower house after seats were divided among the four parties that won enough votes to enter parliament. But it fell far short of the strong majority it enjoyed in the previous chamber.
The opposition says United Russia's result would have been much worse if there had not been widespread ballot-stuffing and other irregularities.
Putin's authority has been dented by the protests and his popularity sank after he announced plans in September to swap jobs with his ally President Dmitry Medvedev after the presidential poll.
Many Russians saw this announcement as a signal that everything had been cooked up between the two leaders with no respect for democracy.
Many dislike the tightly controlled political system he has created around himself, and the protesters, many of whom are relatively well-off and well-educated city dwellers, want a mainstream liberal party created to reflect their views.
Putin, who built up a rugged image with stunts such as riding a horse bare chested, is still expected to win the presidential election next year but he now faces much more resistance than expected.
Word of the protests has spread across the Internet and on social networking sites, and state television has shown some footage of the protests but has not included criticism of the former KGB spy.
I saw on people on the TV screens ... mostly young people, active and with positions that they expressed clearly, Putin said. This makes me happy, and if that is the result of the Putin regime, that's good -- there's nothing bad about it.
(Reporting By Timothy Heritage; Editing by Steve Gutterman)