He accused Clinton of giving “the signal” to opposition leaders, who are expected to gather tens of thousands of people for a major protest on Saturday. Clinton has repeatedly criticised a parliamentary vote in Russia last weekend that gave Putin’s United Russia party nearly 50% of the vote despite widespread reports of fraud.
“[Opposition leaders] heard the signal and with the support of the US state department began active work,” Putin said during a meeting with his All-Russia Popular Front, a new political movement set up to support his candidacy for the presidency in the upcoming election.
“We are all grown-ups here. We all understand the organisers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.”
Russia has vehemently opposed the popular protests that have swept the Arab world, with officials often hinting they are the work of western scheming.
Russian opposition leaders have begun to express concern over how the Kremlin will react to Saturday’s protest, spawned by growing outrage at the multiple examples of electoral fraud. More than 27,700 people have indicated their intention to join the protest on Moscow’s Revolutionary Square via Facebook. Protests have been organised in more than 80 cities around the country.
“We are required to protect our sovereignty,” Putin said. “We will have to think about strengthening the law and holding more responsible those who carry out the task of a foreign government to influence internal political processes.”
Putin made a similar pronouncement just a week before the vote, prompting a campaign against Golos, an independent election monitor that receives foreign grants.
Putin’s statements on Thursday marked the first time he openly acknowledged liberal opposition to his rule. “We must carry out a dialogue with the opposition-minded, and give them the chance to use their constitutional right to demonstrate,” he said.
The liberal opposition has carried out a long campaign to win the right to demonstrate, and has almost always been denied. City authorities gave permission for Saturday’s rally, but warned that the permit only allowed 300 people to gather.
Putin warned that illegal means of demonstrating would be punished. “If someone breaks the law, then the organs of power and keepers of order must demand the law be followed,” he said.
The Kremlin has stepped up the security presence in the capital, with more than 50,000 police and 2,000 interior troops patrolling the streets. Water cannon and helicopters have also been seen in Moscow.
“No one wants chaos,” Putin said, adding that most Russians did not want a repeat of government overthrows in nearby Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
At the same time, Putin appeared to try to distance himself from United Russia, the main target of protesters’ wrath. He told members of Thursday’s Popular Front meeting that the party was pressuring deputies from his new group to use their parliamentary mandates in favour of United Russia.
“I relate to United Russia with very fond feelings – it’s an organisation that I, in my time, created, but I ask you not to give in to pressure,” he told the meeting.
President Dmitry Medvedev, also mentioned the growing protest movement during a visit to Prague on Thursday. “People must have the possibility to say their opinion, that’s normal,” he said. “The most important thing now is to calm nerves and allow the parliament to begin working.”