Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has voiced confidence that he will win Sunday's presidential election in Russia, while bluntly dismissing opposition demands and maintaining his strong criticism of the United States.
Putin, who is all but certain to regain the presidency, sought to put a positive spin on massive protests that have been held against his 12-year rule, saying they were a "good experience for Russia."
"That situation has helped make government structures more capable, has raised the need for them to think, search for solutions and communicate with the society," Putin said during a meeting with editors of top Western newspapers in remarks broadcast by state television and released by his office Friday.
He promised to engage in dialogue with the protesters, but rejected the opposition's main demand to hold a rerun of December's parliamentary election during which Putin's party held onto its majority through what was believed to be widespread official fraud.
The evidence of vote-rigging fueled protests in Moscow that drew tens of thousands of people in the largest show of discontent since the Soviet collapse two decades ago. The opposition is gearing up for another massive protest against what it fears will be manipulations in Sunday's vote.
Putin insisted on Friday that he is favored by a majority of Russians, but admitted he enjoys less support in Moscow and other big cities. "Yes, there is a smaller number of my supporters there, but they are still a majority," he said.
Putin's claim is in line with recent opinion surveys that showed he was backed by some 60 percent of respondents, paving the way for an easy victory against four-Kremlin approved contenders.
September's announcement that Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, will seek to trade jobs angered many Russians, who saw it as cynical maneuvering and a show of contempt for democracy. Putin insisted Friday that he and Medvedev made their decision because Putin is the more popular of the two.
Putin served as president in 2000-2008 before shifting into prime ministerial post due to a term limit.
With Russia's presidential term now increased from four to six years, he is eligible to serve another 12 years as president, which would make him a Russian leader for nearly a quarter century, longer than anyone else since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
"I don't know whether I want to stay in the seat for more than 20 years. I haven't yet made this decision," Putin said.
He reaffirmed his promise to name Medvedev as Russia's prime minister, if he wins Sunday's vote, saying that post would allow Medvedev to implement reforms he has announced. Some observers said, however, that appointing Medvedev could help Putin avoid a wave of discontent that will likely be fueled by planned painful economic and social reforms.
Putin's popularity has been dented by the opposition protests, but he has managed to recoup the losses, thanks to massive daily coverage by state television that has cast him as the defender of nationalist interests against foreign expansion and the protector of economic and social stability.
He has accused the U.S. of instigating the opposition protests to weaken Russia and strongly criticized plans for the U.S.-led NATO missile defense around Europe.
Putin insisted Friday that the planned shield would target Russia's nuclear deterrent and undermine global stability, adding that Washington's refusal to offer Moscow written guarantees that its missile defense system will not be aimed against Russia deepened its concerns.
"When one party gets an illusion that it's invulnerable for a retaliatory strike by another, that stokes up conflicts and aggressive behavior," Putin said. "We consider that extremely dangerous."
He said President Barack Obama's policy of "resetting" ties with Russia has helped reach the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty and successfully negotiate Russia's access into the World Trade Organization, but has brought "practically nothing" on the divisive missile defense issue.
At the same time, he praised Obama as "absolutely sincere" in his course of improving ties with Russia.