MOSCOW (AP) — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the March election, in which he will seek to reclaim presidency, should be transparent and fair, but rejected demands from swelling numbers of protesters for a rerun of the fraud-tainted parliamentary election.
Putin's United Russia party barely retained its majority in the Dec. 4 election despite alleged vote-rigging in its favor. Tens of thousands have protested since, urging an end to Putin's rule, including a Moscow rally last weekend that was the largest show of discontent since the Soviet collapse 20 years ago.
Putin, who served as president in 2000-2008 and remained the country's most powerful figure after switching to the premier's seat due to a term limit, has responded to the protests by offering to ease his rigid controls over the political field. At the same time, he has sought to cast protesters as Western stooges working to weaken Russia.
On Tuesday, during a meeting with supporters he dismissed the opposition as lacking a goal beyond fomenting turmoil, accused its leaders of trying to delegitimize elections and said they haven't proven their worth.
"The problem is they lack a consolidated program, as well as clear and comprensible ways of achieving their goals, which aren't clear either," said Putin, who became prime minister after term limits forced him to leave the presidency. "They also lack people who are capable of doing something concrete."
Putin again flatly rejected the demands for a rerun of the parliamentary vote, saying that "there can't be any talk about reviewing it."
At the same time, he urged his supporters to ensure fairness of the presidential vote to prevent any possible criticism, and discussed details of his proposal to put web cameras at all polling stations. He also suggested that all ballot boxes be made transparent.
"As a candidate, I don't need any vote-rigging," Putin said. "I want the election to be maximally transparent. I want to rely on people's will, on people's trust, and it makes no sense to work if it's missing."
Putin and his protege Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded him in the presidency and is expected to switch to the premiership after March, earlier rolled out a set of proposed political reforms intended to assuage public anger.
They include relaxing registration rules for political parties and restoring direct elections of provincial governors abolished by Putin.
But opposition leaders have rejected the government proposals as window-dressing, pointing out that they would only affect the next election cycle years away and vowing to continue street protests.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption lawyer and popular blogger who has been a key driving force behind the latest protests, vowed that up to a million demonstrators would take to the streets before the presidential election.
In a surprise move reflecting the government's search for a strategy to respond to the protests, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who remains close to Putin, attended the weekend opposition rally and joined calls for the ouster of the Central Election Commission chief.
Kudrin also proposed setting up a discussion panel where protesters and government authorities can exchange views, saying it would pave a path for reforms while lowering the risk of violence. He even suggested holding a repeat parliamentary election next fall.
Kudrin told the business daily Vedomosti in remarks published Tuesday that he met with Putin prior to the rally to propose serving as a mediator between the protesters and the government. Kudrin insisted his proposals were his own initiative, and that the meeting with Putin showed that a "dialogue is possible."
Some observers saw Kudrin's speech at the rally as part of Putin's efforts to soothe public anger.
"The Kremlin isn't going to surrender, it simply has turned from a brutal crackdown to a sly flirting with the active part of the population," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based independent analyst.