By Gleb Bryanski and Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Several leaders of recent anti-government protests in Moscow snubbed a media award ceremony on Friday with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose spokesman said they had missed their chance for dialogue by not turning up.
Putin, who faced the biggest protests of his 12-year rule less than two months before he is expected to return to the Kremlin in presidential polls, angered the opposition by comparing rally participants to chattering monkeys.
Political satirist and poet Dmitry Bykov, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, author Boris Akunin as well as other prominent opposition journalists also declined invitations to the event.
"I just didn't want to go. I was invited but I didn't want to take part in all of this," Leonid Parfyonov, a prominent television journalist who was voted the most trustworthy of the protest movement's leaders by Russians polled during the December 24 rally, told Reuters.
"I don't think he intended to talk about (the protests). I think he wanted some PR for himself and had no intention to speak to anyone."
Putin recently softened his stance, saying he was ready for dialogue with the opposition but that it lacked a common platform and a leader with whom to hold talks. Putin still looks set to win the March election but his popularity is waning.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said protest organizers missed their chance to talk with the prime minister. His press office distributed a list of participants and the reasons given by those not attending, listing many as on vacation.
"Earlier many of them had expressed desire to take their message to Putin. They were given such an opportunity," Peskov said. "They talk loudly about the dialogue but when they are called they do not turn up."
The event was organized at short notice at a time when many Russians are still on holiday. Peskov said invitations were sent out on Monday.
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said the government invitation to the media award ceremony held no mention of an offer for dialogue with the opposition and he simply chose not to attend.
Russian opposition groups plan to hold another demonstration near the Kremlin next month, stepping up pressure on Putin over a controversial election win by his United Russia party. Over 16,300 people have signed up to go on Facebook.
The event, at which Putin handed an award for bravery to a reporter left handicapped by a severe beating while campaigning to save a suburban forest in Khimki, appeared to be the latest in recent government moves to appease its critics.
Mikhail Beketov was nominated for the award by Novaya Gazeta for his reporting in a battle to stop construction of a $1 billion road that cuts through the forest in a suburb of Moscow.
He lost three fingers, part of his lower leg and still has difficulty speaking after being savagely beaten by unidentified attackers in 2008.
NO AWARD WILL BRING BACK HIS HEALTH
At the ceremony Putin hugged a frail and scarred Beketov, who was loudly applauded as he walked up with the use of a crutch to receive the $32,000 award, and promised to speed up an investigation to find those responsible for his beating.
The state-backed road construction project is being carried out by the world's largest construction company Vinci in partnership with a Russian firm in which Putin's former judo partner Arkady Rotenberg has a stake.
Russian environmentalists say local officials with commercial interests linked to the road construction project are behind the attack -- charges denied by local officials.
"I cannot call Putin's behavior anything other than hypocrisy," environmentalist and opposition activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, who has worked closely with Beketov, told Reuters.
"No awards will bring back his health."
Several high profile journalists and Putin critics such as Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya have been murdered during Putin's rule. Others such as Kommersant daily reporter Oleg Kashin were severely beaten.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Myra MacDonald)