Putin dismisses opposition protests

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin rejected opposition protests against his presidential election victory and his foreign ministry ruled out any softening of Moscow's stance on Syria, strong indications Tuesday that the Russian leader has no intention of easing tough policies either at home or abroad.

The harsh statements came after helmeted riot police forcefully broke up Monday's opposition attempt to occupy a downtown square in a challenge to Putin's victory; they arrested about 250 people who were later released.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the police action, saying that it showed a "high level of professionalism, legitimacy and effectiveness," comments signaling that the government would show no hesitation to use force again on protesters.

Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister due to term limits, won more than 63 percent of Sunday's vote. The opposition and independent observers said the election was marred by massive fraud, including so-called "carousel voting" in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.

Putin on Tuesday shrugged off opposition claims of rampant vote fraud as irrelevant. "It's an element of political struggle, it has no relation to the election," he said.

His campaign has been laced with anti-Americanism, including claims that the U.S. had instigated the opposition protests in order to weaken Russia — strident rhetoric that resonated well with his core support base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees.

He can be expected to continue the same tough policies he has pursued as prime minister, including opposing U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.

Russia's foreign ministry on Tuesday dealt a blow to Western hopes that Moscow might drop its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad after Putin's election, saying firmly that it sees no reason to change its stance.

"We are deeply convinced that we are right," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters. "That is why we call on our partners not to adopt a hard-line stance, but to seek compromise, stimulate negotiations and a political process."

The ministry dismissed hopes for a change in the Russian position on Syria as "wishful thinking."

"Russia's stance on the Syrian settlement has never been subject to any short-term considerations and hasn't formed under the influence of electoral cycles, unlike that of some of our Western colleagues," it said.

Russia has protected Assad from United Nations sanctions over his crackdown on protests and accused the West of fueling the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition. Moscow has warned it will block any U.N. resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO action helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Putin himself last week chided the West for refusing to demand that Assad's opponents pull out from the besieged cities along with government troops to end bloodshed, saying that it's the West, not Russia, that should be blamed for the continuing violence.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also lashed out Tuesday at European election monitors, who reported serious problems in the election, including questionable vote counting and a campaign environment strongly skewed toward Putin. A ministry statement called the mission's conclusions "prejudiced and disputable."

The ministry fumed at U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who voiced concern about Monday's crackdown, tweeting: "Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values."

The ministry shot back: "The police action was far more gentle than what we have seen during the dispersal of Occupy Wall Street protests and tent camps in Europe."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who has become increasingly critical of Putin's rule, said that Sunday's election and the authorities' response to protests reflected the Kremlin's fear of the opposition.

"The government's statements and actions have reflected its fear," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "And on the other hand, it wanted to scare society and rule it by fear."

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Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova contributed to this report.

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