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Speaking a day after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow to demand a rerun of a disputed parliamentary election and to call for Mr Putin's resignation, his spokesman said the dissenters were in the minority.

"As a politician and a presidential candidate, Putin still has the support of a majority," Dmitry Peskov, his spokesman, told a French news agency.

"And we should treat the opinion of a majority with respect. Those people who came out onto the streets – they are a very important part of society. But they are a minority."

Mr Putin's controversial bid to return to the Russian presidency after a March 4 election was not in doubt as he was "beyond competition," he added. Braving sub-zero temperatures an estimated 80,000 people turned up for an anti-Putin protest on Christmas Eve, making it the biggest demonstration of its kind since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, could not attend but called on Mr Putin to stand down afterwards, saying he had been in office long enough and should quit while he was ahead.

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