Protests that have hit Moscow and other Russian cities this week are directed by the United States, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin alleged Thursday, vowing to crack down on those "who carry out the aims of foreign countries."
The harsh words from the top came as opposition activists continued to make preparations to hold rallies in dozens of cities around the country this weekend, demanding a re-run of a parliamentary election they see as marred by widespread fraud.
Moscow and St. Petersburg have already seen the largest protests of Mr. Putin's 12 years in power this week, and nearly 30,000 people have signed their names to a Facebook page to say they will attend a "meeting" Saturday in Revolution Square, in the heart of the Russian capital.
Mr. Putin's televised statement was backed by an intimidating police presence in downtown Moscow. Interior Ministry troops carrying batons and wearing black protective vests were deployed on main squares, and policemen stood Thursday at 50-metre intervals along Tverskaya Street, the city's main commercial drag.
So far many of the protesters are the young and well-educated middle class. They are taking to the streets for the first time in their lives, after learning of the election fraud and the protests via Facebook, Twitter and Russian social-networking sites.
Much of their anger is directed at Mr. Putin himself, who has announced plans to return to the presidency, which he held from 2000 to 2008, next year after four years in the theoretically subordinate post of prime minister. Mr. Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of encouraging Russians to take to the streets after she said this week that the United States had "serious concerns about the conduct of the elections."
"She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work," Mr. Putin said in his first direct remarks on the protests.
He accused the United States – which spends millions every year supporting free speech and human rights groups inside Russia – and other Western countries of trying to promote political change in the country, citing the examples of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and a bloodier uprising a year later in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
"Hundreds of millions are being invested in this work. We need to work out forms of protection of our sovereignty, defence against interference from outside," Mr. Putin said. "We have to think of ways to tighten accountability for those who carry out the aims of foreign states to influence domestic political processes."
Oleg Kozlovsky, one of the founders of Solidarity, an opposition movement that is a co-organizer of Saturday's planned protest, said in an interview that the accusations of foreign support were nothing new. "When people hear the same slogans day in, day out, all this stuff about the West … being behind all the troubles in Russia, fewer and fewer people believe it after 12 years."
Although some non-government organizations do accept money from the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy – most famously the election-monitoring group Golos ("Voice") which created a map of ballot box violations around the country – Mr. Kozlovsky said Solidarity is supported by Russian donors.
Mr. Putin's allegations show the Kremlin has been scared by the size of this week's election protests, Mr. Kozlovsky said. "I would be too."