- Vladimir Putin says critics are trying to undermine upcoming presidential elections
- The prime minister speaks at his traditional year-end question-and-answer program
- Putin says recent protests in Russia show that people are free to express their views
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday brushed off widespread criticism that the December 4 parliamentary elections in Russia were falsified.
He said their results "reflect the actual line-up of forces in the country, as well as the fact that the ruling force -- the United Russia party -- has lost certain positions."
In his traditional year-end question-and-answer program, televised live by state media, he said there is nothing new in the fact that the opposition is not happy with the election outcome.
"That happens every time and will be happening in the future. The opposition always struggles and takes every opportunity to sideline the authorities, to blame them and to highlight their mistakes. It is a totally normal thing."
Speaking of large-scale protests that took place last Saturday in Moscow and many other cities across the country, Putin said he is glad that many young and active people were participating in them.
"If this is the result of 'Putin's regime' that people now have a chance to express their point of view, it is normal," he said, "as long as all those actions are within the law."
He said there were established procedures in place for resolving disputes, including through the courts. "We should proceed from the assumption that our courts will act fast and be objective," he said.
Putin suggested the opposition's criticism of the vote has a far-reaching goal -- that of aiming to undermine confidence in the upcoming presidential election in which he is running.
"It is obvious to me that the attacks on the latest election are secondary; their primary goal is the next election, the Russian presidential election," Putin said.
"It is necessary to minimize the possibility of claims that this or future elections may be unfair in order to cut the ground under the feet of those wishing to de-legitimatize the national authorities."
The Russian opposition is not alone in voicing concern over the conduct of the election, however. The Organization for Security and Cooperation said in a preliminary report that some political parties had been prevented from running and the vote was "slanted in favor of the ruling party." Its election-observer mission detailed alleged attempts to stuff ballot boxes, manipulate voter lists and harass election monitors.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also said the United States had "serious concerns" about the election and called for a "full investigation" of apparent irregularities.
Looking ahead, Putin said the opposition must have the opportunity to control everything that is going on at polling stations, and he proposed that live web cameras be installed at all voting stations across the country in the presidential elections next March.
"I am proposing to the Central Electoral Commission to install live web cameras at every polling station across the country -- at more than 90,000 of them -- and let those cameras work round-the-clock, day and night, to take in on to the Internet so that the entire country could see what is going on at every polling box -- to completely remove all concerns about falsifications," the prime minister said.
Tens of thousands turned out Saturday to protest against election results that returned Putin's United Russia party to power but with a smaller majority.
Police estimated crowds in Moscow at 25,000, while organizers said the total was 40,000, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. Either figure would make the protests the largest in the Russian capital in 20 years.
Claiming the results of parliamentary elections were rigged, protesters chanted "Putin out."
They also braved freezing temperatures in other Russian cities to demonstrate against what they said was vote fraud.
Another protest is scheduled for December 24 -- three days after the new parliament is due to hold its first session, under a decree signed Tuesday.
Putin said that such public protests and discontent should not undermine Russia's political system.
"We have qualitatively new tasks for the medium-term and longer, strategic prospect. We will need to re-configure society, strengthen the political system and broaden the foundation of democratic institutions. Naturally, we need to modernize every sphere of life," he said.
Putin promised that if he is elected president, he will work and maintain contact with all political forces in the country, including the opposition, "although it's often useless or impossible."