Putin: Protesters Waved 'Condoms'

12/15/2011 01:20 pm ET | Updated Feb 14, 2012

* Putin uses familiar arsenal in annual televised marathon

* Some Russians say the leader is out of touch with reality

* Putin says played ice hockey when protests took place

By Gleb Bryanski

MOSCOW, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin told the
nation he was practising ice hockey during the biggest protests
of his 12-year rule and mistook the white ribbons worn by
protesters for condoms.

In an annual call-in show, the Russian prime minister
reached for a familiar mix of reassuring rhetoric, crude humour
and verbal assaults against Washington and the West to please a
crowd of millions watching live on state television.

Putin fielded a wide array of questions from across Russia,
displaying a detailed grasp of economic and social issues in a
program he has used every year for a decade to show he has his
finger on the pulse of the world's largest nation.

But to some in the audience, Putin showed only that he is
out of touch.

"Aliens have nothing in common with earthlings," said
Yevgeny, 21, the trainee lawyer in the Ural Mountains city of
Yekaterinburg.

With business-like props such as a crisp suit and a big
desk, Putin turned in a record 4 1/2-hour performance, five
minutes longer than last year's call-in show.

This time, it came days less than three months before a
presidential election expected to return Putin to the Kremlin
for at least six years -- and days after protests than showed
many Russians are not pleased by that prospect.

Tens of thousands of people, mainly educated urban dwellers,
protested last Saturday over alleged fraud in his ruling party's
favour in a Dec. 4 parliamentary election, calling for a rerun
and chanting "Russia without Putin!"

Many protesters wore white ribbons prompting comparisons to
the "colour revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, which ushered
Western-friendly leaders to power and followed allegations of
election fraud.

"Honestly speaking, when I saw something on people's chests,
I thought it was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that they put on
such contraceptives," Putin said when the TV anchor asked him
whether the ribbons could become a symbol of an uprising.

TOUGH TALK

The ex-KGB officer, a proud product of the tough courtyards
of St. Petersburg, is known for crude language that has helped
develop his strong, street-smart image.

In the past, he has said that separatist militants should be
"wasted in the outhouse" and "scraped from the sewers", and he
once suggested a journalist come to Russia for a particularly
extensive circumcision.

This time, his protest punch line got few laughs.

On social networks, Russians matched the mockery of Putin's
contraceptive comment with an explosion of sarcastic and
critical posts. One doctored photo showed Putin in front of the
Kremlin wearing a condom attached to his jacket.

"The best kept secret of the regime which has finally become
public: Putin is stupid," wrote Yevgeniya Chirikova, a
environmental activist and one of the protest leaders.

"Putin, if you want to see a condom, look in the mirror,"
read another post.

Putin, who kept silence on the protests until the television
phone-in, has appeared sombre and tired at several recent public
appearances.

He was jeered by spectators when he took to the ring at a
martial arts event in Moscow last month, seen as the breaking of
a taboo and a sign of eroding popularity.

Asked about the incident, Putin used wry humour to suggest
that the boos could have been aimed elsewhere but that, if he
was the target, the boos were just a downside of his dominance.

"This noise could have been caused by a variety of reasons.
One of them is that my mug, which is already all over the
television screens, appeared in the ring, provoking some
dissatisfaction," he said.

While expressing respect in some remarks for peaceful
protesters, he also seemed determined to dismiss the
demonstrations as being of marginal importance.

When asked about meetings held in the Kremlin on how to deal
with the protests, Putin said:

"To tell you the truth, I was learning to play ice hockey at
the time. I am still trying to show something, although I look
like a cow on ice...I did not pay too much attention to what was
happening."

"SOMEONE TO BLAME"

Many observers have said that the protests have shown a
genuine dissatisfaction among the more liberal and well-off
Russians with Putin's monopoly on power, and that his response
suggests he has been getting poor advice.

"It seemed to me that Putin is not the same. He still smiles
and makes jokes but when there is no prepared answer to a
question he does not stand up to the blow, but looks for someone
to blame," said Vladimir Sukhoveyev, 32, in Yekaterinburg.

Last week, Putin accused the United States of inciting the
post-election protests.

On Thursday, he suggested the United States wants "vassals"
rather than allies around the world and lashed out at U.S.
Senator John McCain, who recently warned "Vlad" he could soon
face an Arab Spring-style revolt.

Putin mixed a verbal assault on McCain with criticism of the
conduct of NATO in Libya, where he said longtime leader Muammar
Gaddafi was "destroyed ... without trial or investigation."

"Mr. McCain ... fought in Vietnam, I think he has enough
peaceful civilians' blood on his hands," he said, later adding
that "anybody would go nuts" after being held "in a pit" -- a
reference to McCain's experience as a prisoner of war.

"Maybe he can't live without horrible, disgusting scenes of
Gaddafi's massacre, when it was shown on all the TV screens
around the world how he was killed, all bloodied," Putin said.
"Is that democracy?"

To show his more educated side Putin cited British writer
Rudyard Kipling to say that his enemies were like frightened
Bandar-log monkeys hypnotised by the giant python Kaa in The
Jungle Book.

"Come all one pace nearer to me, Bandar-log," Putin said,
imitating the python. "I have loved Kipling since childhood."


(Additional reporting by Natalya Shurmina in Yekaterinburg,
Russia; editing by Steve Gutteman)

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