MOSCOW (AP) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has voiced confidence that he will win Sunday's presidential election, while bluntly dismissing opposition demands and maintaining strong criticism of the United States.
Putin, who is all but certain to regain the presidency, sought Friday to put a positive spin on massive protests against his 12-year rule, saying they have been a "good experience for Russia."
"That situation has helped make government structures more capable, has raised the need for them to think, search for solutions and communicate with the society," he said.
Speaking at a meeting with editors of top Western newspapers in remarks broadcast by state television, he promised to engage in dialogue with the protesters, but strongly rejected the opposition's main demand to hold a rerun of December's parliamentary election in which Putin's party held onto its majority through widespread official fraud.
The evidence of vote-rigging fueled protests in Moscow that drew tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent since the Soviet collapse two decades ago. The opposition is gearing up for another massive protest against what they fear will be manipulations in Sunday's vote.
Putin insisted he has majority support, but admitted he enjoys lower support in Moscow and other big cities.
"Yes, there is a fewer number of my supporters there, but they are still a majority," he said.
Putin's claim is in line with recent opinion surveys that show he is backed by some 60 percent of respondents, paving the way for an easy victory against four-Kremlin approved contenders.
September's announcement that Putin and his protege and successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, will seek to trade jobs angered many Russians, who saw it as a cynical maneuvering and a show of contempt for democracy. Putin insisted Friday that he and Medvedev had made the decision because he was the more popular of the two.
Putin's popularity was further dented by opposition protests, but he has managed to recoup the losses thanks to massive daily coverage by state television stations that cast him as the defender of nationalist interests against foreign expansion and the protector of economic and social stability.
He has accused the U.S. of instigating the opposition protests to weaken Russia and strongly criticized plans for the U.S.-led NATO missile defense around Europe.
Putin insisted Friday that the planned shield would target Russia's nuclear deterrent and undermine global stability, adding that Washington's refusal to offer Moscow written guarantees that its missile defense system will not be aimed against Russia deepened its concerns.
"When one party gets an illusion that it's invulnerable for a retaliatory strike by another, that stokes up conflicts and aggressive behavior," Putin said. "We consider that extremely dangerous."