By Oleg Shchedrov
NOVO-OGARYOVA, Russia, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned opposition critics on Friday not to use the economic crisis as an excuse to challenge his government and told them to abide by the law.
Unrest across Russia over economic upheaval has been muted, with the biggest protests so far taking place in the Far East port of Vladivostok where hundreds were arrested in January demonstrations over car tax.
Speaking at a meeting with leaders of Russia’s dominant political party, United Russia, ahead of regional elections this weekend, Putin said that criticism of the Russian government during a crisis was allowed, but only within the laws.
"If opposition actions go outside the law, it means they are not pursuing the goals of improving people’s lives, but their own selfish goals and the state has the right to defend itself properly," Putin said at his residence outside Moscow.
Russia has tight controls that restrict opposition groups from holding rallies or marches without official sanction. Applications from groups like chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov’s ‘Other Russia’ movement are frequently rejected.
Putin and other senior Russian officials have criticised "people’s revolutions" in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine which propelled pro-Western leaders to power through street protests.
"We won’t allow events to happen like in some other countries, to which I will not point a finger now. At the same time, we won’t limit lawful forms of protest," Putin said.
The ballot will mark the first electoral test for Putin since the global slowdown hit Russia last summer.
Opposition groups this month started a series of protests across Russia and are hoping to expand their limited base of support to those affected by the dramatic slowdown in the Russian economy that has sent unemployment soaring.
After a decade of steady growth, the economy is set to shrink by at least two per cent this year, which economists say will push up the jobless rate, now standing at over 8 percent.
Putin’s comments were dismissed by opposition figure Ilya Yashin of the newly-formed Solidarity group who said authorities define any criticism as a threat to national interests.
"This is an indicator of the nervousness of the authorities which understand how huge is the probability of public unrest," said Yashin. (Reporting by Oleg Shchedrov and Aydar Buribayev, writing by Conor Sweeney)