Putin sees little chance for talks with protesters

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday insisted he favoured dialogue with the country’s protest movement but said this was currently impossible as they neither had a leader nor a programme.

Putin said the opposition movement was too disjointed and that he did not even know which of its speakers attended a rally on Saturday that became the largest ever show of discontent of his 12-year domination of public life.

“I do not even know who spoke there,” Putin said in televised comments. “Do they have a common platform? No … Is there anyone to talk to? We need to discuss all of their issues, their problems, but this requires some sense.”

Saturday’s second demonstration was both larger and more directly focused against Putin than a December 10 protest called in response to a fraud-tainted parliamentary vote won by his ruling party.

Protesters are planning a new event in defence of “political prisoners” on a central Moscow square on Thursday that could attract hundreds of people but has not yet been approved by city authorities.

“We were never against dialogue with the opposition but we are against all forms of extremism,” added Putin, without giving further details.

‘No need for this’
Putin also rejected speculation that had circulated among some analysts and financial markets that he could become acting head of state ahead of March presidential polls to get a full grip on Russia amid its protest wave.

Analysts said the protests had stunned some Kremlin insiders and speculation had mounted Putin may simply assume President Dmitry Medvedev’s role early after having previously agreeing to swap jobs after the March 4 vote.

“We have not discussed this,” Putin said of the idea of him becoming acting head of state. “There is no need for this.”

Putin also said he had no intention of going on a formal vacation to meet what some analysts claim is a constitutional requirement to ensure a level playing field in the campaign.

“I like this work,” Putin said.

The number of candidates who will face Putin grew to three on Wednesday after election authorities registered Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the flamboyant ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The central election commission had earlier registered Putin — the first candidate to win the honour — and former upper house of Parliament head Sergei Mironov of the left-leaning A Fair Russia group.

All three had been beaten badly by Putin in previous elections and none is expected to pose a serious challenge to a leader who has remained Russia’s most popular politician for more than a decade despite his recent dip in support.

‘Big boy’
The established political parties represented in the State Duma are not fully involved in the protests whose leaders like the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Yet the protests that have shaken Putin’s once-invincible image could make his likely third term more difficult than his first stretch as president from 2000 and 2008.

The ex-KGB chief, who has a history of poor relations with the opposition, also denied ever sending Alexei Kudrin — a former finance minister and old ally who attended Saturday’s rally — as a formal envoy to the protesters

“He went on his own — he is a big boy,” Putin said.

His comments came as the Russian press reported that Putin was responsible for the sidelining on Tuesday of top Kremlin strategist Vladislav Surkov who designed Russia’s tightly-controlled politics and did not avert the demonstrations.

“Surkov has his vision of the development of events after the mass meetings and his opinion differs from that of Putin’s circle,” the Vedomosti daily quoted a source in the Kremlin administration as saying. — AFP

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Dmitry Zaks
Dmitry Zaks
Politics and economics reporter with Agence France-Presse (AFP

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