By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — A jubilant Vladimir Putin on Wednesday shrugged off opposition claims that his presidential election victory was unfair and marred by fraud, saying any violations were not significant enough to affect the vote's outcome.
Putin slapped at his foes, criticizing them as failing to offer a constructive program and daring the opposition to become a real political force by proving its worth at the ballot box — a tall order in a country where elections are tightly controlled and opposition parties have been sidelined.
The Russian leader's tough remarks indicate he has no intention of softening his policies in response to massive protests that have revealed the depths of public anger over his 12-year rule.
"Those who lose never like their defeat," a beaming Putin said.
Putin, who has steadily rolled back Russia's post-Soviet freedoms to tighten controls over the political scene, suggested that his opponents take advantage of Kremlin-drafted bills yet to take effect that ease restrictive registration rules for political parties and liberalize campaign rules.
The Kremlin reforms came in response to a series of massive protests against Putin's rule, which had been fueled by the fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December.
The Kremlin approved a new demonstration for Saturday on Novy Arbat, one of Moscow's major avenues, but even one of the protests' organizers acknowledged it would be hard to sustain the movement's momentum, calling "the romantic phase of protest" over.
Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister due to term limits, won a third six-year term with nearly 64 percent of the ballot of Sunday's vote. The opposition and independent observers said the vote was marred by massive violations, including so-called "carousel voting" in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
The League of Voters, a loose civil organization that trained volunteers to monitor the presidential election, said Wednesday it does not recognize the outcome of the vote, which it described as unfair and dishonest.
Putin dismissed the claim, saying that there could have been some violations, but they could only have affected "one percent (of the ballots) at most."
"Our opponents must listen to the voice of people, who have said their word," he said in televised comments. "Society doesn't seem to like what they offer."
Putin's statements came after helmeted riot police forcefully broke up Monday's opposition protest. An authorized rally that drew about 20,000 to a downtown square went on peacefully, but after it ended police dispersed a few hundred protesters who tried to occupy the square in a bid to challenge Putin's election victory.
Police arrested about 250 people, who were later released.
Putin praised the police for acting "professionally" and said the protesters themselves had provoked the crackdown. "After they openly and deliberately violated the law, police were obliged to act," he said.
Monday's rally were small compared to previous protests, which attracted as many as 100,000 in a massive outpouring of public anger.
Boris Akunin, one of the rallies' organizers and a well-known novelist, said Wednesday that the "romantic phase of the protests is over" and he "would not be surprised" if the Saturday event attracted a smaller crowd, primarily made up of disgruntled observers who witnessed vote-rigging.
"People have realized that you cannot oppose robots from the riot police with white ribbons, white balloons and funny flash mobs," Akunin told reporters. "People are feeling a kind of stupor. People need some time to think things over."
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.