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In Russia today, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held his annual public question-and-answer session. The televised marathons have become an unofficial state of the union address.

But Peter van Dyk reports that after the recent mass protests in Russia, this year's call-in was like none other.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

PETER VAN DYK, BYLINE: It was a warm welcome after a tough couple of weeks for Vladimir Putin. For the first time in more than a decade running Russia, he is facing serious opposition to his rule. And this year, he had to face questions that were tougher than usual. Like question number two.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

DYK: Do you think the elections were honest and their results were fair, the moderator asks, reading an emailed question.

PRIME MINISTER VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

DYK: The election results absolutely reflect the balance of power in the country, Putin said.

The results gave the ruling United Russia Party a slim majority. But observers say the vote was tainted by fraud. And videos of ballot box stuffing have gone viral on the Internet. It's the evidence of fraud posted online that drove more than 50,000 protesters onto the streets of Moscow on Saturday. Putin said he was pleased that if as a result of the Putin regime, young people were standing up for their beliefs.

PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

DYK: But he also made fun of the white ribbons some wore, comparing them to condoms at an anti-AIDS rally. And he suggested some students were paid to protest.

MARINA IVANOVA: I don't think that he's happy to see us there. I'm absolutely sure that he's not happy to see us there. And I'm absolutely sure that not one student was paid for going to this protest action.

DYK: Marina Ivanova was one of the protesters demanding that the elections be re-run. Putin made it clear that isn't going to happen.

IVANOVA: I think that, actually, he was sounding completely inadequate. And, well, I think next time there will be lots of people.

DYK: New protests are already planned. For now, Marina says she and her young friends are joking on Facebook about some odd words Putin used today: tough-sounding slang and an obscure Kipling reference. During the four and a half hour session, four of the top 10 hashtags trending on Twitter were Russian. Among them: Botox. The Internet has been buzzing that Putin's appearance has changed in recent months.

Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center in Moscow says Putin seemed tired. She says he's in a genuine political crisis, and the crucial moment will be the presidential election in March, in which he is the leading candidate.

MASHA LIPMAN: Putin may send a message that he's confident and he is the master of the situation. But it is also true that his rating is on decline. And because of the rigging in the parliamentary election, people expect rigging in the presidential as well.

DYK: Putin proposed putting Webcams in all 90,000 polling stations. He also said there could be changes to the way governors are selected. The president appoints them now. And he held out the possibility of bringing more parties into the political arena.

But Masha Lipman says the lack of trust means nothing he said today would have changed the opinion of people who have taken to the streets in protest. She says what he did say suggests that in the choice between cracking down or opening up, he is for the moment taking the softer option.

For NPR News, I'm Peter van Dyk in Moscow.

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