MOSCOW — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin worked Thursday to soften his authoritarian image, hinting at democratic concessions, but he also pushed back at protesters who have rocked the country in recent weeks, saying they had been paid to show up.
Using a televised question-and-answer session, Putin, in his first full-scale response to demonstrations after disputed parliamentary elections this month, portrayed himself as tough but reasonable, agreeing that not all was perfect in the country he has led for 12 years.
If protests are “the result of ‘Putin’s regime,’ then it is good,” he said. “These are absolutely normal things as long as all the actions are within the law.” But Putin gave no indication he would be willing to agree to one of the protesters’ key demands, a new set of parliamentary elections.
“There is nothing new about the falsification claims and the opposition’s discontent with the election results,” Putin said, adding that it happens after every election around the world.
Putin’s United Russia party suffered a major blow in the Dec. 4 elections, losing its supermajority in the State Duma, but it still managed to maintain control of the lower house despite allegations that ballot-stuffing offset even greater losses.
Putin in the marathon telecast, which lasted more than 41 / 2 hours, did say he might be willing to allow small political parties to register for elections and would be open to the surrender of some of the Kremlin’s control over regional politics. He also said he would be open to the placement of Web cameras in every polling place to help prevent fraud.
In comments to reporters after the broadcast, Putin added that if he were reelected president, he would consider freeing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who was arrested in 2003 on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement that many viewed as politically motivated.
Putin also said he opposed foreign adoptions, a move likely to reinforce American concerns.
Questions for the prime minister — broadcasters said they had received more than 1.7 million of them — reflected the frustrations of a country that has been hit hard by falling oil prices and the global financial slowdown. Russians asked Putin about corruption and the sagging economy, in addition to the elections and his response to the protesters.
Many questions reflected a sense that the government was unresponsive and corrupt, and Putin said that needed to change, but he also implied that without him, Russia would face terrorism and poorer finances.
He offered little in the way of conciliation. At one point, when a questioner mentioned kickbacks, Putin joked that “at least they have something to pay those kickbacks with!” And he said that he had thought the white ribbons protesters had been wearing were condoms.
He also hinted darkly at foreign interference in Russia’s political processes, echoing a claim he made last week that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been behind the protests that started after the Dec. 4 election results were announced.
“I know that young people were paid for coming” to a Saturday rally in Moscow, Putin said, offering no evidence to back up the claim. “Let them earn a little bit.”
Putin, looking at ease in a dark suit and maroon tie, is running for president after term limits forced him out of the job three years ago.
Putin retained power by taking the prime minister’s job. His September announcement that he and the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, had planned years ago to make a switch angered many Russians who resented the implication that they had no say in who led them. Few, however, expect that Putin will lose the March election, setting him on the path toward being Russia’s top leader for 18 years — 24 if he stays for an extra term.
Still, the elections are coming at a time when faith in Putin is at low ebb. The open format of the session reflected an attempt to create at least the appearance of more spontaneity than in previous years, when Putin delivered obviously rehearsed answers.
And, in an unusual departure, the second questioner in the studio audience was Alexey Venediktov, a well-known independent journalist who runs the Echo Moskvy radio station, which is frequently critical of Putin.
“The stylistic difference was quite palpable,” said Grigory Golosov, a political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg. “But those who are critical are not appeased.”
The reaction from organizers of the protests to Putin’s broadcast was swift and dismissive.
“Putin has not understood anything from the recent rallies,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader, on Echo Moskvy radio.
Birnbaum reported from Berlin.