MOSCOW 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)