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Putin Hits Back at Opposition Protest in Vote-Fraud Standoff

Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hit back at protests over alleged electoral fraud even as Russia’s biggest street demonstrations in a decade threaten to complicate his bid to return to the Kremlin next year.

While Putin pledged to bolster transparency during March’s presidential vote, he rejected accusations of fraud at Dec. 4 parliamentary elections and said foreign funding was helping fuel protests organized by his foes to “destabilize” Russia. He spoke in a 4 1/2-hour phone-in show on television yesterday.

Putin, 59, is facing the biggest unrest since he came to power. Opposition groups got permission this week to stage a demonstration in Moscow on Dec. 24 for as many as 50,000 people, twice the size of the crowd estimated by police at a similar rally Dec. 10. The protests may force Putin into a run-off for the Kremlin if he can’t win more than 50 percent support.

“Putin doesn’t believe he has to make any serious compromises,” Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation research group, said yesterday by phone. “He made statements the opposition will consider insulting.”

The ruble was little changed at 31.7674 per dollar after yesterday snapping 10 days of losses against the U.S. currency. The 30-stock Micex Index advanced for a second day, adding 0.7 percent to 1,403.33 at 10:59 a.m. in Moscow.

Orange Revolution

Putin warned against being “dragged into some schemes to destabilize society” and compared the rallies against accusations of ballot-rigging to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Organizers paid students to join the Dec. 10 rally in the Russian capital, he added.

“We know the Orange Revolution in Ukraine -- some of our opposition leaders were in Ukraine at the time and were working officially as advisers to Yushchenko,” Putin said, referring to the 2004 street protests in the former Soviet republic that overturned the results of a presidential election and brought opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to power. “They are transferring these tactics to Russia.”

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and an opposition leader who backed Yushchenko as president, became an economic adviser after the Ukrainian leader was elected. He didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.

Some of his opponents “have Russian passports, but are acting in the interests of foreign states and with foreign money,” Putin said.

Majority Eroded

The ruling United Russia party’s majority in the State Duma dropped to 238 of the legislature’s 450 seats from 315 after the 2007 vote as stalling wage growth and the government’s failure to curb corruption repelled voters. International observers said the parliamentary vote was marked by ballot-stuffing and was neither free nor fair.

Putin’s party won more than 46 percent of the vote in Moscow, Europe’s largest city with 11.5 million people and the epicenter of the protests to date, according to official results. That compared with 27.5 percent support in an exit poll by the Public Opinion Foundation.

“The results of these elections definitely reflect the real balance of forces in the country,” said Putin, who announced plans in September to return to the Kremlin, pushing aside his protege Dmitry Medvedev. “The opposition will always claim election results aren’t fair.”

Courts must review allegations of vote fraud after official results are announced, he added.

Presidential Vote

As he gears up for Russia’s 2012 presidential elections, Putin said he’d quit his leadership role if he understood that he no longer had the support of the people.

The premier’s approval rating is 46 percent, according to a Nov. 26-27 poll of 3,000 people by the Public Opinion Foundation. No margin of error was given. Putin would get 42 percent if a presidential election were held this weekend, the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, said today, citing a survey conducted among 1,600 people on Dec. 10-11 with a 3.4 percentage-point margin of error.

Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 and may be in power until 2024, told election officials yesterday to install web cameras at every single polling station in March to avoid any accusations of vote fraud.

‘Delegitimize the Authorities’

“For me it’s clear these attacks about the recent elections have an ongoing character -- the main aim is the next elections, presidential elections,” Putin said. “We need to make sure there aren’t any problems here, to minimize the chance for people to point to these elections as unfair, to pull the rug from under those who want to delegitimize the authorities completely.”

Putin also said he would consider pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he succeeds in returning to the Kremlin, countering billionaire presidential challenger Mikhail Prokhorov’s pledge to free the former Yukos Oil Co. owner.

Ousted Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Putin shouldn’t “provoke” political protesters with claims that many of them were paid to attend rallies.

People are right to condemn the election results because violations occurred and the response from the authorities has been “inadequate,” Kudrin told reporters in Moscow today.

Putin’s attitude to the protests shows that he hasn’t understood the need to take on board the complaints of middle-class Russians who took to the streets, said Julian Rimmer, a trader of Russian shares at CF Global Trading in London.

“He has been trotting out the familiar canards to explain away the most vociferous expressions of discontent since his reign of ‘managed democracy’ began,” Rimmer said by e-mail today. “He has, by turns, blamed foreign interference for the dissent or clever manipulation of callow youth by unscrupulous ‘counter-revolutionary elements.’”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lyubov Pronina in Moscow at lpronina@bloomberg.net; Henry Meyer in Moscow at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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