VLADIMIR PUTIN yesterday mocked the tens of thousands of Russians who have protested against his rule in recent weeks, dismissing his critics as paid-up agents of the West.
In a four-and-a-half-hour televised question-and-answer session, his longest yet, the Russian prime minister made it clear he was determined to return to the presidency next year and would be making few concessions to his detractors.
"If I see I do not have such support, I will not remain in office for a single day," vowed Mr Putin.
But the former KGB agent said he felt under no pressure to leave politics after an upsurge in popular protests against his rule, saying he was too busy learning to play ice hockey to pay much attention to the demonstrations.
"I know that students were paid some money -- that is good if they could earn something," he joked. At last Saturday's protest, the biggest of its kind since 1991, crowds in central Moscow chanted "Russia without Putin".
The protests were triggered by a disputed parliamentary election earlier this month which was easily won by his United Russia party, albeit with a sharply reduced share of the vote.
International monitors ruled the election was marred by ballot-stuffing and the opposition claimed that Mr Putin's party had stolen 13 million votes. Mr Putin rejected such criticism and made it clear there would be no re-run of the election.
"It properly reflected the real balance of power," he said. "As for the fairness or unfairness: the opposition will always say the elections were not fair. Always. This happens everywhere."
Accusing his critics of taking money from the West, he claimed there was a plot to destabilise Russia by masterminding a velvet revolution. (© Daily Telegraph, London)