Vladimir Putin expected to face questions over protests on live TV show

Vladimir Putin is expected to break his silence on Russia‘s protest movement on Thursday, when he hosts an annual televised call-in show that has become one of the hallmarks of his rule.

The programme, which usually lasts for hours and is a forum for Putin to promote his cult of personality, comes as the prime minister faces an unprecedented challenge to his 12-year domination of Russian politics.

He has so far remained silent on the growing protest movement, which last weekend saw 50,000 in Moscow and thousands more around the country gather to demonstrate over disputed elections. A second Moscow protest, set for Christmas Eve, was approved on Wednesday.

Nearly 20,000 people have indicated their intention to attend the protest via Facebook, two days after the event was announced.

Protest organisers have begun holding meetings around Moscow, hoping to keep up the momentum until the next event and until 4 March, when Putin will stand in a presidential election that is expected to sweep him back into the Kremlin. Their main demand continues to be the annulment of a 4 December parliamentary vote marred by claims of widespread fraud.

Despite the alleged falsifications, Putin’s party, United Russia, garnered less than 50% of the vote and lost 77 seats in the Duma, or lower house of parliament. The poor result claimed its biggest victim on Wednesday, when Boris Gryzlov, the party’s chairman, said he would resign as Duma speaker.

“I decided today to reject my mandate as a deputy,” Gryzlov said in a statement posted on the United Russia website. He said he would step down because it would “not be right to hold the post of chairman of the chamber for more than two consecutive terms”.

Gryzlov has been the public face of the party since first taking up the mantle of Duma speaker in 2003, and is notorious for inadvertently exposing the body’s rubber-stamp approach to politics by once publicly stating that “the Duma is not a place for discussion”.

Gryzlov’s resignation came two days after Vyacheslav Pozgalev, governor of the Vologda region, said he would resign because of United Russia’s poor showing.

“I believe that it is impossible to govern a region with such a level of trust,” Pozgalev said. United Russia only took 33.4% of the vote in the northern region.

Andrei Vorobyov, a top party official, said Gryzlov’s resignation was “a part of the political life in any democratic country”.

“Rotations are unavoidable,” he said.

United Russia officials have long engaged in rhetoric calling for new life to be breathed into the party, and speculation over Gryzlov’s potential replacement centred on Putin loyalists.

The Kremlin has been struggling to find a strategy to deal with the protests and drop in public support. The president, Dmitry Medvedev, met the leaders of the Communist, Just Russia and LDPR parties on Tuesday and indicated that they would have more of a say when the Duma reconvenes on 21 December.

But the parties’ public trust has been marred by long collaboration with the Kremlin and protesters indicated that a growing voice for the so-called “systemic opposition” would not be enough.

Wednesday also saw Mikhail Prokhorov, who announced this week that he would run against Putin for the presidency, make a bid for Kommersant, the publishing house owned by metals tycoon and part FC Arsenal owner Alisher Usmanov. The bid was rejected later that night.

The move came a day after senior editors at the publishing house, which publishes the Kommersant daily, Vlast magazine and broadcasts a radio station, were fired after publishing photographs that were deemed to have insulted Putin as part of a report into elections fraud.

Journalists at the publishing house protested against the move with an open letter published on Wednesday.

“We see [Vlast editor Maxim Kovalsky’s] firing as an act of intimidation aimed at preventing critical remarks about Vladimir Putin,” they wrote. Usmanov responded in an open letter by denying the firings were a form of pressure.

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