Medvedev puts down insider calls for more democracy

IZHEVSK, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev slapped down a rare sign of political dissent within the country’s ruling elite Tuesday after calls for the restoration of gubernatorial elections.

Medvedev said that anyone who wanted these elections could quit their own office at once -- perceived as a swipe at comments Monday by longstanding Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a leading figure in the dominant United Russia party.

“I think the current system for giving authority to governors is optimal,” Medvedev said, referring to the present system allowing the president to hire and fire governors.

“If something does not suit in the current procedure for filling these posts, they can tender their resignation,” said Medvedev, without referring to Luzhkov by name.

Since the abolition in 2003 under former President Vladimir Putin of elections to Russia’s regional governors and presidents, there has been almost no dissent from senior office-holders against the Kremlin. But in a televised interview this week, Luzhkov was reported by Russian media as calling for a return to gubernatorial elections -- in defiance of the Kremlin’s clear opposition.

“I think there are different times,” Luzhkov was quoted as saying by Interfax Monday. “This issue could be reconsidered again now. I would support their reinstatement,” Luzhkov was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

A political survivor since the early 1990s, Luzhkov has maintained his own power base within Moscow, the most populated urban area in Europe. Because of the city’s size, Luzhkov holds the equivalent status of a regional governor.

Putin has been criticized by opposition groups for stifling democracy in Russia, with the elimination of regional elections often cited as evidence of the over-centralization of power in the hands of the president.

But Putin and his Kremlin advisers argued that it improved administration and cut corruption across the vast country.

Luzhkov was directly elected and since then has been reappointed by Putin but is seen by many political analysts as having an uneasy relationship with both Putin and Medvedev.

Tuesday, Luzhkov qualified his earlier remarks by saying “now is the not the time to talk about this,” referring to the impact on Russia of the global economic crisis.

Reporting by Denis Dyomkin; writing by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Richard Williams