MOSCOW Calls for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to resign and drop his presidential bid flooded his campaign website within minutes of its launch on Thursday, prompting administrators to limit public access.
Putin's spokesman and campaign official Dmitry Peskov said the website fell victim to a hacker attack in its early hours and some of the anti-Putin messages were spam. He denied that any messages were blacklisted for political reasons.
"All this fuss with calls for resignation is a kind of computer game that children are playing at. It has nothing to do with constructive dialogue," Peskov said.
Putin also unveiled his draft program for the March presidential poll, which acknowledged Russians' desire for faster change but barely touched on issues such as corruption and political reform, the subject of many voters' complaints.
Putin faced the biggest rallies of his 12-year rule last month when tens of thousands of people, many affluent and educated city dwellers, took to the streets to protest against alleged fraud in the December 4 parliamentary election.
Putin remains Russia's most popular and influential politician but his popularity has been shrinking since he decided last September to return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich, I suggest that you do not turn the situation into a revolution and resign from the post of prime minister and also take your candidacy off the presidential race," read a message posted by Svetlana Sorokina.
"Leave politics, please. It is obvious that power is like a drug but it would be a decent move," wrote Andrei Antinenko.
Many of the messages were taken off the public website but retained their public Internet links. They were then quickly discovered by journalists and bloggers who posted blacklisted messages on their websites.
Anti-Putin messages accounted for at least one third of all the messages posted on the site before access was blocked.
"You have been in power for twelve years. It is enough. Everything you could do, you already did. One should not rule for ever. The country will not survive another term of your presidency," read one of the blacklisted messages.
FIRST ROUND VICTORY
Some pro-Putin messages contained calls for censorship of media and the Internet and a ban on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations. Many were complaints about local bureaucrats not doing their jobs properly.
A fall in Putin's approval ratings, recorded by pollster VTsIOM, to 51 percent in December from 61 percent only a month before, raised the possibility of a second round of voting if Putin failed to win more than half the votes in the first round.
The 59-year-old prime minister, who has carefully cultivated a "tough guy" image, was also booed at a sports event he attended and is regularly ridiculed on the Internet and even in some television programs.
Putin responded to the rising wave of discontent with allegations of foreign funding for the opposition and his trademark crude jokes, comparing white ribbons worn by protesters to condoms.
This further angered the opposition and overshadowed the political liberalization plan proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev in response to the protests. Putin later softened his tone, saying he was ready for a dialogue.
Peskov said Putin's campaign headquarters were aiming for a victory in the first round of the presidential poll.
"We are sure that he will be president. We have no doubts about it," he told reporters. "Bad are the campaign headquarters staff who do not believe in their candidate's victory in the first round," he added.
The election program published on Putin's campaign website acknowledged that some Russians wanted faster change than he had been able to deliver in his 12 years in power.
"The citizens of the country want faster development, a life in line with the best global living standards, participation in dealing with the problems the country is faced with," it said.
It also said that low labor productivity was the main challenge facing Russia in the next 10 years, but said little about issues such as corruption and political reform.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Tim Pearce)