Sharp-tongued and defiant, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denounced those protesting vote fraud as stooges of the West and insisted that Russia's national election was valid. His opponents were undeterred.
In a 4 1/2-hour marathon call-in show on national TV, Putin aimed to erect a bulwark against a rising wave of discontent. But his disdainful tone appeared likely to only fuel more protests, after a fraud-tainted parliamentary vote Dec. 4 sparked the largest public anger Russia has seen in a generation.
In an appearance lasting from high noon to sunset Thursday in Moscow, a vigorous Putin defended the election as reflecting "the real balance of power in the country" and rejected calls for it to be rerun. That effectively dismissed opposition claims that vote fraud had given Putin's United Russia party a majority of the seats in parliament.
The 59-year-old leader acknowledged that the tightly controlled political system he crafted during a dozen years in power "may and should move toward liberalization" and proposed that web cameras be set up in all the country's more than 90,000 polling stations ahead of the March 4 election in which he will seek to return to the presidency.
The opposition was not mollified.
"The boorish, disdainful attitude toward the people that Putin demonstrated in today's television show was obvious," said Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, in a blog post after the show.
Last week's protests, which included tens of thousands in central Moscow, indicated that Putin's return to the presidential chair he occupied from 2000 to 2008 will not be as easy as he had been expected only two weeks ago. United Russia lost about 20 percent of its parliament seats, and critics say the slim majority it retained was due only to widespread vote fraud.
Opposition groups plan a series of protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg this weekend, hoping to follow up on last week's dramatic demonstrations in more than 60 cities. Officials have allowed up to 10,000 people at each. Another protest planned for Dec. 24 has an attendance limit of 50,000.
"He is not a bad man, but I wouldn't trust him to be president for another term," Vladimir Gerasimenko, a 56-year-old Muscovite, said as he watched Putin's show in an electronics store.
In a telling display of anger, the number of people who signed up on Facebook to go to the Dec. 24 rally increased from 18,000 to 21,500 just in the hours Putin was speaking.
Putin also faces a new and charismatic challenger _ New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Hours before Putin's TV appearance started, the metals and banking billionaire met with supporters.
"I deeply understand the demands and the strivings of the people who took to the streets," Prokhorov told reporters, adding that he may join a follow-up protest later this month.
In a direct challenge to Putin _ although his name was not mentioned _ Prokhorov announced that his first move if elected would be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky has been in prison since 2003 on tax evasion and fraud, charges widely seen as punishment for defying Putin's power.
Previous editions of the annual national call-in show have been largely an opportunity for Putin to brag for hours about improvements in the country, but this one was unusually confrontational. Both callers and studio participants repeatedly raised questions about the election, the anti-fraud protests and the repression of opposition groups.
"Putin still doesn't understand what's going on in the country and who are these people coming out into the streets. He is continuing to use demagoguery and cynically denigrate the citizens, their rights and freedom," Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's former prime minister who has now become a top opposition figure, was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.
Challenger Prokhorov also vowed to allow free registration of opposition parties and restore popular elections of provincial governors if he wins the March vote.
Putin has marginalized opposition forces, tightened election rules and abolished direct elections of governors. He has defended those moves as necessary to prevent criminal clans and separatist forces from dominating the gubernatorial elections, but suggested that he may allow their election in the future. He said candidates for governors still should be nominated by the president, but could then be put to a direct popular vote.
In a characteristic nationalist gambit, Putin accused protest organizers of working to destabilize the country on orders from the West, saying "that's a well-organized pattern of destabilizing society."
Putin last week had dismissed criticism of the vote by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of U.S. efforts to weaken Russia.
"They still fear our nuclear potential," he said Thursday. "We also carry an independent foreign policy, and, of course, it's an impediment for some."
The rift over the elections revealed deep cracks in U.S.-Russian relations despite President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia. Putin said Moscow would like to develop cooperation with Washington but harshly criticized U.S. foreign policy, accusing it of unilateralism.
"America doesn't need allies, it only needs vassals," Putin said.
Putin alleged the organizers of Saturday's demonstration in Moscow had paid some participants, publicly referring to them as sheep. Unleashing his penchant for earthy remarks, Putin derided the white ribbons that have been adopted as a protest symbol, saying he thought demonstrators had "put some condoms" on their sleeves to promote safe sex.
One of Russia's most-read bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, who took part in Saturday's rally, was disappointed with Putin's dismissal of protesters as paid agents of the West.
"Instead of unifying the nation and looking for opportunities to start a discussion, we still see the same Soviet 'witch hunt', which means searching for enemies who go to protests because they've been paid," he wrote in his blog.
Putin said the results of Russia's parliamentary election properly reflected the people's will, adding that the drop in support for his party was a natural result of the 2008 global financial crisis. He brushed off vote fraud claims as part of the opposition's maneuvering ahead of the presidential election, and said any complaints should go to the courts.
"The opposition goal's is to fight for power and it's looking for every chance to advance," he said.
He promised voters that President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to permanently switch the nation to a summer time can be reviewed. The move left Russians trudging to work in complete darkness in the morning, angering many.
Putin also lashed out at U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded him with a Twitter post saying "the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
"Mr. McCain was captured in Vietnam and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years," Putin said. "Anyone (in his place) would go nuts."
McCain responded Thursday with another tweet: "Dear Vlad, is it something I said?"
Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.