Updated at 11:41 a.m. ET
MOSCOW - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vehemently rejected opposition calls for a rerun of the parliamentary election, accusing those who organized massive protests against vote fraud of working to weaken Russia at the West's behest.
In blustery remarks likely to further fuel anger against his 12-year rule, Putin insisted Thursday that the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, which drew allegations of fraud and triggered the largest protests in Russia in 20 years, was a genuine reflection of the people's will. He also put a positive spin on the protests that dented his power and threatened his bid to reclaim presidency in the March 4 vote, saying they reflected a rise in public activity that he welcomes.
"The results of this election undoubtedly reflect the real balance of power in the country," Putin said on a marathon TV show that lasted 4 1/2 hours. "It's very good that United Russia has preserved its leading position."
Yet in a characteristic move, he accused protest organizers of working to destabilize the country on orders from the West. "That's a well-organized pattern of destabilizing society," Putin said.
Putin's comments came on the same day that his most notable competitor, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail 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 a punishment for defying Putin's power.
Speaking in the Russian capital with supporters, Prokhorov hailed last weekend's massive protest in Moscow against vote fraud.
"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.
The 46-year-old Prokhorov, estimated to be worth $18 billion, made his fortune in metals, banking and media. He also owns 80 percent in the New Jersey Nets.
Asked about Prokhorov's presidential bid, Putin said he would welcome a strong competitor. He also added he would consider Khodorkovsky's plea for a pardon if he submits one.
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.
In the election, Putin's United Russia party lost about 20 percent of its seats and no longer has the two-thirds majority that previously allowed it to change constitution at will. It barely retained a majority in the State Duma, and opposition parties and some vote monitors say even that result was inflated by ballot-stuffing and other violations.
The opposition is calling for the parliamentary election to be annulled and rerun. Putin's insistence the election was valid indicates that no solution to Russia's political tensions is immediately in sight.
"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, his former prime minister who has now become a top opposition figure, was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.
In the week after the election, Putin 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 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 by tens of thousands in Moscow had paid some participants and publicly referred to them as sheep. Unleashing his penchant for dismissive and 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.
The harsh comments and his insistence that the Dec. 4 election was valid will likely fuel anger and may produce even bigger crowds for upcoming protests. 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.
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.