Vladimir Putin dismissed the thousands of protesters who have massed against his rule as agents of the west in his first response to the growing discontent during a marathon phone-in show.
Putin repeatedly mocked the protesters on Thursday, by comparing the symbol of their discontent – a white ribbon – to condoms. “Regarding ‘colour revolutions’, everything is clear – this is a developed scheme to destabilise society that did not rise up on its own,” he said at the start of a televised QA that ran for more than four and a half hours.
He said students had been paid to turn out on Bolotnaya Square last weekend, when an unprecedented 50,000 people gathered to protest against disputed elections and Putin’s rule. “Frankly, when I looked at the television screen and saw something hanging from someone’s chest, honestly, it’s indecent, but I decided that it was propaganda to fight Aids – that they were wearing, pardon me, a condom,” Putin said. Protesters have adopted the symbol to express their opposition to the parliamentary election, which saw Putin’s United Russia party gather nearly 50% of the vote despite widespread allegations of fraud.
Putin dismissed the allegations, calling them a tool for the opposition to gain power. “The opposition will always claim that [the elections] were dishonest – this happens in all countries,” he said.
He did not address protesters’ demands for a recount of the election result, or an annulment. Protesters have promised to gather for a second major demonstration on Christmas Eve and have begun focusing on building the movement ahead of a 4 March election, which is widely expected to return Putin to the presidency.
Putin repeatedly used the marathon call-in show as a platform for his presidential promises, promising to increase pensions, hand out housing to military officers and protect Russia from undefined enemies.
He lashed out several times at the US, further putting into doubt the much touted “reset” in relations between the two countries. “We would like to be allies with the United States,” he said. “It seems to me that America doesn’t need allies, but vassal states.”
“People are tired of the dictates of one country,” he said. He said the US continued to fear Russia’s size and nuclear arsenal and lashed out at Senator John McCain, who recently said Russia’s protests were a sign that the Arab Spring had reached Russia. “Mr McCain fought in Vietnam – he has enough civilian blood on his hands,” Putin said.
He also saved choice words for London, saying that oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, embroiled in a high court lawsuit, should have met in a Russian court instead. “That would be more honest – for them and for our country,” Putin said. “The money was made and stolen here – let them divvy it up here too.”
Addressing growing criticism, Putin consistently shifted the blame to outside actors. One caller asked him to respond to a photograph that appeared in Kommersant Vlast magazine last week, showing a spoiled election ballot from London that was scrawled with a curse-laden insult directed at Putin.
“There’s nothing new here,” Putin said again. “I remember in the early 2000s, when we were actively fighting terrorism in the north Caucasus, there was nothing that I didn’t hear or see – especially, of course, from our western partners.”
“Regarding this inscription, as far as I remember, it was made on a ballot in London,” Putin said. “We know who gathered in London and why they don’t return to Russia.” A host of Russian oligarchs and dissidents have fled to London since Putin first came to power 12 years ago, including Berezovsky, the Kremlin’s favoured scapegoat.
Putin paid lip service to “developing democracy” but offered few concrete examples. Instead, he praised the government’s growing strength: “Let it go a little bit and many will understand what real difficulties are.” Putin has built his reputation on promises of stability, hinting that chaos would reign without his rule.
One man glaringly absent from Putin’s answers was Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president. Putin only mentioned him once during the nearly 300-minute long spectacle, prompting many observers to question whether the outgoing president would be able to follow through with his planned job swap with Putin. Yet Putin devoted more time to praising his longtime ally Alexei Kudrin, who was fired as finance minister earlier this year.