Putin: Drop in support for party "inevitable"

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with the heads of regional public offices of the United Russia rulling party, in Moscow, December 6, 2011.

MOSCOW - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday he's satisfied with the performance of his party in Russia's parliamentary election even though it lost a significant number of seats, adding that a drop in support is "inevitable" for any ruling party. The statement came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton again criticized the election.

United Russia won about 50 percent of Sunday's vote, a result that opposition politicians and election monitors said was inflated because of ballot-box stuffing and other vote fraud. It was a significant drop from the 2007 election when the party took 64 percent, gaining a two-thirds majority that allowed it to change the constitution. But Putin said the party had retained a "stable" majority.

"Yes, there were losses, but they were inevitable," he said. "They are inevitable for any political force, particularly for the one which has been carrying the burden of responsibility for the situation in the country."

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The results reflected public fatigue with Putin's authoritarian streak and widespread official corruption, signaling that his return to the presidency in next March's election may not be as trouble-free as he expected.

Public anger against a heavy-handed state interference in the campaign in support of United Russia and evidence of vote fraud prompted thousands of protesters to march across downtown Moscow late Monday, chanting "Russia without Putin!"

Police detained about 300 protesters in Moscow and 120 participants in a similar rally in St. Petersburg. One of the leaders of radical opposition, Ilya Yashin, who was among those arrested, was sentenced to 15 days in jail Tuesday for disobeying police.

Security forces beefed up their presence across the capital Tuesday in an apparent anticipation of more protests.

Clinton criticized the Russian vote for a second straight day, saying Tuesday in Lithuania that "Russian voters deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation."

Russian officials have denied any significant vote violations.

Konstantin Kosachev, a senior United Russia member who headed the foreign affairs committee in the outgoing parliament described Clinton's statement as "one of the darkest pages in the Russian-U.S. relations" and warned Washington against supporting the opposition.

Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, which is funded by U.S. and European grants, came under heavy official pressure ahead of the vote after Putin likened Russian recipients of foreign support to Judas. Golos' website was incapacitated by hackers on the voting day, and its director Lilya Shibanova and her deputy had their cell phone numbers, email and social media accounts hacked.