Vladimir Putin softened his tone towards the protesters who have staged the biggest political rallies of his 12-year rule, saying on Wednesday he was ready for dialogue with Russia’s opposition but was at a loss for a leader to hold talks with.
Tens of thousands gathered in central Moscow on Saturday to protest against election results that gave Putin's United Russia party a majority in the lower house of parliament, or Duma. International monitors said the vote was marred by violations.
The demonstrators demanded a re-run of the election and a resignation of the Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov, Putin’s close ally.
The Kremlin flagged a series of political reforms aimed at pacifying the opposition but said there will not be a re-run of the election.
Putin, who initially dismissed the demonstrators as paid agents seeking to destabilize Russia in the interests of its external foes, has been gradually changing his tone, admitting that protesters “also deserved respect.”
“The dialogue should take place. In what form? I will think about it,” Putin said when he visited the government's media center to toast champagne with reporters ahead of the New Year holiday.
“They should formulate some kind of shared platform ... Who do we talk to?” he said, adding that popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny was one of the leaders but there also were others.
Putin has held two meetings with his former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, seen by some opposition activists as the most acceptable face for dialogue among Putin's inner circle, to discuss the protests.
Putin denied he sent Kudrin to the Dec. 24 demonstration to mediate between the protesters and authorities.
“Again about Kudrin. I did not send him there, he went himself, he is a grown-up boy,” Putin said.
Putin, accused of being out of touch with the growing protest movement, has walked a thin line between questioning the opposition’s credibility as a real political force and addressing protesters’ concerns in the country of 140 million.
Despite his falling popularity ratings and the opposition movement gaining momentum, Putin -- who became prime minister in 2008 after eight years as president -- still looks set to win the March 2012 presidential election.
Russia’s opposition, marginalized under Putin’s tightly controlled political system, have been galvanized by the protests but have failed to unite behind a single leader.
Putin said the demonstrators were made up of a mix of marginalized liberal movements, communists and nationalists, who had so far failed to reach a common set of demands.
“Is there a common platform there? No there isn’t,” he said. “We need to talk to everybody about their claims, about their problems, but it requires some thinking.”
Putin, who provoked outrage among opposition by saying he mistook white ribbons they wore for condoms, rebuked reporters for asking him “secondary” questions about the protests, saying his energy deals were more important.
“Instead of making up some secondary questions, you should think about what has just happened -- we got a permission from Turkey to build the South Stream pipeline. Do you know that this is a big event in the European energy sphere,” Putin said.
Turkey gave Russia permission on Wednesday to build the pipeline through its territory, supplying the missing piece needed by Moscow to secure markets for its gas in Europe.
Putin said he saw the economic downturn in the European Union, Russia's largest trade partner, and not the protests as the biggest problem for Russia next year, which can potentially aggravate the capital flight from the country.
“The markets are tightening, they (in Europe) do not have enough liquidity, they start pulling the money out of emerging markets, and the money trickle out from us as well,” Putin said.