MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Monday the results of Russia's contested parliamentary polls will stand despite a wave of street protests and a probe by the election authorities.
"Even if you add up all this so-called evidence, it accounts for just over 0.5 percent of the total number of votes," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP in a telephone interview.
"So even if hypothetically you recognise that they are being contested in court, then in any case, this can in no way affect the question of the vote's legitimacy or the overall results," Peskov said.
His comments followed an order from President Dmitry Medvedev for election officials to look into reports of vote-fixing after the ruling party's narrow victory sparked the largest protest rallies since the 1990s.
Saturday's demonstrations near the Kremlin saw more than 50,000 people deride the outcome of the December 4 elections that were widely seen as a litmus test for Putin's planned return to the presidency next year.
Putin's United Russia collected 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma, a sharp drop from 315 in 2007, but the vote was marred by reports of violations and unprecedented state pressure against independent election monitors.
The rallies have put Putin under the strongest political pressure he has faced in his dominant 12-year rule and suggested that his path back to the Kremlin in March elections may be trickier than originally thought.
Late on Monday it was announced that Putin would hold his annual live television question and answer session with Russians on Thursday beginning at 0800 GMT.
The rapid sequence of events appears to have sowed some confusion among Russian authorities which had never before faced such an evident groundswell of public resentment in the Putin era.
Putin originally accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the unrest by questioning the poll's legitimacy -- a comment similar to the Cold War era rhetoric that dominated his 2000-2008 presidency.
But Putin's spokesman Peskov said at the weekend that "we respect the point of view of the protesters... and will continue to listen to them".
Medvedev followed that up on Sunday by announcing the launch of an inquiry into the violations reports.
"I disagree with the slogans and declarations made at the meetings," Medvedev wrote in his Facebook account. "Nevertheless, I have issued instructions to check all polling station reports about (failures) to follow election laws."
Putin himself shunned the public spotlight over the weekend and did not make any reference to the elections in comments aired on state television Monday from a trip to the central region of Tver.
But a hint of the state's new strategy emerged when ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin -- an old Putin ally from their days in native Saint Petersburg -- proposed building a new party that could gain better legitimacy with frustrated voters.
That idea was followed almost immediately by the announcement by metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov that he intended to build a new pro-business party with Kudrin and challenge Putin in the March poll.
"We have a parliament that is completely leftist," Prokhorov said.
Several analysts interpreted the decision as an effort by an increasingly nervous Kremlin administration to put the brakes on protests before they gain further momentum.
Yet another sign of official worry emerged with news that a top pollster used by the Kremlin and constantly cited by the state media was suspending the publication of its weekly approval ratings.
"We continue to conduct surveys on a weekly basis, but the results are not being released to the public," a spokeswoman for the Public Opinion Foundation told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The agency last published survey findings on November 27 when when Putin's approval hit a new low of 54.4 percent.
The Kremlin had in past times of trouble used state-sponsored youth groups to come out on the streets of Moscow in noisy demonstrations that declared their support for Putin's team.
Another such event was held by the Kremlin wall on Monday under the slogan "Russia! Putin! Constitution!" which United Russia said was attended by about 25,000 people.
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