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Putin criticizes his party after opposition rally

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday criticized his party following an unusually large opposition protest, saying it has fed the country with empty promises.

Putin's attack on the United Russia party follows last weekend's protest in the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad where thousands rallied against the government in the largest anti-Kremlin protest in years.

"You can't promise everything to everyone at once," Putin told the United Russia leaders who gathered at his suburban residence outside Moscow. "You can't turn into a Mr. Promiser who promises things to get to power and doesn't keep the promises."

United Russia controls federal parliament as well as local legislatures and serves as a power base for Putin, who has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012. Government officials often go out of their way to ban proposed opposition protests.

Putin is the leader of United Russia. The carefully-choreographed arrangement is intended to cast Putin as a supreme leader above the political fray who continues to call the shots even after his eight-year presidency.

By criticizing United Russia, Putin apparently sought to keep a distance from the party, which some critics have compared to the Soviet Communist Party.

"It's evident and right that citizens make complaints," Putin said. "A well-organized government is always able to solve any problems while the lack of such authority leads to anarchy."

Putin told United Russia leaders that they must offer efficient ways of solving problems and not be afraid to admit and correct its mistakes. "Direct contact with citizens is absolutely necessary," he said.

Neither he, nor any leaders of the United Russia on Friday made any public reference to Saturday's protest in Kaliningrad, that drew around 10,000 people according to organizers. Police said about 6,000 people showed up.

The rally was followed by Sunday's protests in Moscow which drew several hundred participants, and similar demonstrations in St. Petersburg and several other Russian cities. The protests come before municipal elections planned for March in several Russian regions. Clearly worried, the government dispatched top officials to Kaliningrad to check the situation.

The protests came before municipal elections planned for March in several Russian regions.

Most top federal and regional officials in Russia are United Russia members, and the opposition has accused the party of using its leverage to rig regional elections in October. Independent election observers and opposition parties, including the Communists, protested what they said were mass electoral violations, citing evidence of multiple voting and ballot stuffing.

Putin's successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, told United Russia in November that it should stop trying to manipulate elections and learn to win fairly.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.