Vladimir Putin dismissed calls to rerun a parliamentary election in a marathon phone call-in on Russian television on Thursday and ignored most of the demands of protesters complaining of electoral fraud and demanding an end to his 12-year rule.
In a 4-1/2 hour call-in question-and-answer show, the prime minister held out the prospect of slightly easing his political control but shrugged off the significance of the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power in 1999 and deflected attention by criticising the West.
Reaction on the social network Twitter suggested Putin came across as out of touch and, dressed in a suit and tie at a large desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, he looked less at ease than in previous years.
From my point of view, the result of the (parliamentary) election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country, Putin said in the show, which was 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.
The former KGB spy tried to present himself as a reasonable, even-handed national leader during the call-in, with the aim of raising his popularity from the low ebb it has been at since he announced plans on September 24 to reclaim the presidency next year.
The organisers of rallies which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets on Saturday had hoped for a response to their calls for the December 4 poll to be rerun, the election commission head dismissed, opposition parties registered and political prisoners freed.
Putin hinted at liberalising the political system by letting regional governors be popularly elected -- though only after approval by the president -- and suggested legislation might be changed to allow small opposition parties to be registered.
We can move in this direction, he said in response to a question about a liberal opposition party whose leaders include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov but was barred from contesting the parliamentary the election.
But he gave no indication he would respond to any of their other main demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests and hoping they fade, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for on December 24.
Other apparent Kremlin moves to ease tension since the protests swelled on Saturday include the announcement by a United Russia leader that he will not take up his seat in parliament and allowing billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to run for president, a move that might appease some protesters.
PUTIN THOUGHT PROTESTERS HAD CONDOMS
Many of the protesters are young professionals in big cities who have answered online calls to come to rallies and want the political system opened up to include a liberal opposition reflecting their views.
Putin sought to appear democratic and unconcerned about the protests by saying they were absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law.
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.
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 alleged students were paid to go to the opposition demonstrations, adding: They will at least make some money.
OUT OF TOUCH?
The protest organisers had already accused Putin this week of ignoring their demands and his comments went down badly among many people on 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.
Russia-based economists said Putin was clearly having to work harder than in previous years to maintain his credibility but doubted he had won any new support in his performance.
He's not winning any fresh votes. He didn't say anything to win the votes of the other crowd (of opponents) - he could have used this big event to push forward his rating, said Alexey Bachurin, of Renaissance Capital investment bank.
Putin, 59, has used the annual call-in to burnish his image as a strong leader with a detailed knowledge of the country and an interest in all its people. Questions have usually focused on social issues such as healthcare, pensions and housing.
He criticised the West, and particularly former Cold War enemy the United States, on at least two occasions - a tactic often used to shift blame or divert attention from problems.
The United States does not need allies, it needs vassals, he said.
He defended his economic record, saying there had been some remarkable and meaningful achievements such as reducing poverty.
PUTIN UNDER PRESSURE
He hinted that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is held in high regard by foreign investors and many young professionals, could return to government after falling out with the Kremlin in September.
Such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments, he said.
But Putin was under much more pressure at this year's call-in following the large protests over the election, which international monitors said was slanted to favour United Russia, although it won only a slim majority in the lower house.
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 held from 2000 until 2008, fearing it would mean a new era of political and economic stagnation.
Many Russians saw the announcement on September 24 that he planned to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev as a signal that everything had been cooked up between them with no respect for democracy.
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.
(Reporting by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Douglas Busvine)