Russia's Medvedev tries to appease protesters

MOSCOW Thu Dec 22, 2011 11:03am EST

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev makes his annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow December 22, 2011.  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev makes his annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow December 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev called on Thursday for sweeping reform of Russia's political system to try to appease protesters staging the biggest demonstrations since Vladimir Putin rose to power 12 years ago.

In his last state of the nation address to parliament as president, Medvedev outlined plans that would ease the Kremlin's tight grip on power, including restoring the election of regional governors and allowing half the seats in the State Duma lower house of parliament to be directly elected in the regions.

His opponents, preparing for new protests across Russia on Saturday, dismissed his offer as the empty promises of a lame-duck president who is stepping aside for Putin to return to the main seat of power next year after four years as premier.

"Today, at a new stage in the development of our state, supporting the initiative proposed by our prime minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system," Medvedev, 46, told rows of deputies in an hour-long speech which was greeted by occasional applause.

"I want to say that I hear those who talk about the need for change, and understand them. We need to give all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life."

The moves were intended to address calls for change by tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since a December 4 election which they say was rigged, but Medvedev and Putin have ignored their main demand - to rerun the poll.

A Kremlin aide said the proposals would be sent to parliament in the next few days. They signaled that Russia's leaders now realize that the mood has changed in the country and something has to be done to satisfy the protesters.

But the opposition dismissed the moves as more empty words by a man who had failed to carry out his promises since he was ushered into the presidency by Putin in 2008 because the constitution barred his mentor from a third successive term.

"It's an answer to the protests, but it's not enough. It's half-hearted," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, who took part in a big rally on December 10 at Moscow's Bolotnaya Square and is helping plan another rally on Saturday at the capital's Sakharov Avenue.

"The main demand at Bolotnaya was to scrap the election results and call for new elections to be conducted according to new rules. Instead, he is trying to preserve the illegitimate Duma. This will not be accepted by society and will not be accepted by those on Sakharov Avenue."

NEW KREMLIN CHIEF OF STAFF

Shortly after Medvedev delivered his speech, the Kremlin announced the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as chief of the presidential staff, handing one of Russia's most powerful jobs to a long-time Putin ally.

The decision could signal that Putin sees no long-term place in his team for acting Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, often seen as the grey cardinal of Russian politics. But it is unlikely to point to a major change in Putin's thinking.

"Putin's team will allow no reform, because now they want him to get 60 percent (in the March presidential election), which is impossible to achieve using fair mechanisms," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said.

Putin said last week that he was ready to consider allowing the election of regional governors, provided their candidacy was approved by the Kremlin. The former KGB spy had abolished the direct election of governors in 2004 to tighten his control of Russia's often independent-minded regions.

In his speech in a gilded Kremlin hall to members of the Duma and the Federation Council upper chamber, Medvedev said there should be a simpler process for registering parties - allowing more parties to take part.

He suggested reducing the number of signatures required to run for president, said officials should declare their major expenses to address public concerns of corruption and called for the creation of an independent "public" television channel.

Putin has closely controlled state television and Russian media have been criticized for all but ignoring the mass protests against his rule.

But the protesters, many of them young professionals who have answered calls to rallies on social network sites, say Medvedev and Putin, 59, are out of touch and must not get away with tinkering with a political system they see as undemocratic.

"All this was necessary to legitimize the results of the December 4 election and the coming presidential election ... It is an intentional lie and it is misguiding," said independent political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Comparing the proposals to the "perestroika" reforms that failed to save the Soviet Union, he said "you cannot get toothpaste back in the tube ... The system is decomposing.

"They are frantically trying to find ways to preserve it, but these chaotic measures just bring it closer to the end."

(Additional reporting By Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Douglas Busvine)

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Comments (3)
bcbbcb wrote:
I can almost see the strings Putin uses to make his mouth move.

Dec 22, 2011 4:38am EST  --  Report as abuse
KrisCraig wrote:
Putin is a pathetic excuse for a man. During his 12-year dictatorship, he has worked to revert Russia back to a totalitarian state by poisoning his political critics and using terror and propaganda to control the population.

I only wish Mr. Putin could read this and similar comments being posted around the world about him every day. I can only imagine how red his face would turn with frustration, knowing that he can do nothing to silence those of us who live outside Russia.

I hope the Russian masses will begin to see this monstrous war criminal for what he really is and overthrow his corrupt, cruel regime once and for all. It would be most gratifying to see him brought before The Hague in irons to face justice and answer to his victims.

Dec 22, 2011 12:44pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Need4Debate wrote:
This certainly doesn’t sound like Putin pulling strings this time, but it doesn’t matter…why should we believe anything from a lame duck president who has defaulted on every promise that got him elected to begin with? It is interesting, however, that he decides to speak now of reforming government, reducing corruption, and ensuring free and open elections, clearly pandering to the protest movements. Where were these ideas BEFORE the Duma election? And how convenient that we are to expect such changes to happen AFTER the presidential elections, when we will be faced with the prospect of another decade of Putin’s strong arm leadership and feudalistic rules. Please! What needs to happen now is that these protesters, both those who actively demonstrate and those who are still too afraid to speak out, will embrace a candidate that represents real change, new ideas, and the guts to bring real democracy to Russia. Mikhail Prokhorov is such a man, but I don’t know if he will even be allowed to campaign, or if that, that the results will be fairly counted.

Dec 22, 2011 2:35pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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