Putin puzzler: Russian leader accuses Clinton of spurring protests (VIDEO)
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"It's not a coincidence that Putin has ditched United Russia, reorganized his campaign and named (popular film director) Stanislav Govorukhin as chief of his election headquarters," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an expert at the official Institute of Systems Analyses in Moscow.
"The thing is, United Russia was caught red-handed in massive manipulations and vote-rigging, and everybody knows it. Putin doesn't want to be chained to that, so he's cutting the party loose," he says.
A coalition of opposition parties claimed Wednesday that as much as 25 percent of the votes cast in Sunday's Duma election may have been falsified. At a Moscow press conference, the group presented the results of a survey of 102 polling stations that suggested United Russia actually won barely a third of the votes, and not the almost 50 percent claimed by the official central electoral commission.
Putin told his supporters Thursday that foreign governments have been funding radical NGO's and opposition groups in an effort to undermine Russian independence.
"Pouring foreign money into electoral processes is particularly unacceptable," said Putin. "Hundreds of millions are being invested in this work. We need to work out forms of protection of our sovereignty, defense against interference from outside.... We have to think of ways to tighten accountability for those who carry out the aims of foreign states to influence domestic political processes."
Some experts say that could portend a tougher crackdown on dissent.
"Since Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, our leaders have been panicking over the threat of colored revolution in Russia, and now that panic is at a fever pitch," says Yury Korguniuk, an expert with InDem, an independent Moscow think thank.
"It's so much easier to scapegoat foreign enemies and their supposed domestic agents than to address society's real discontents, and that appears to be the way Putin is headed," he adds.