Russia’s Medvedev calls for reforms, but protesters not satisfied

MOSCOW — The sweeping measures that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed Thursday to loosen the Kremlin’s tight grasp over political life indicate the deep anxiety government leaders have about demonstrations that have shaken their country in recent weeks.

But few protesters were satisfied with his plans.

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Thousands took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday, braving strong winds and torrential rains for a second week of protests over Russia's fraud-tainted parliamentary vote. (Dec. 18)

Thousands took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday, braving strong winds and torrential rains for a second week of protests over Russia's fraud-tainted parliamentary vote. (Dec. 18)

In his final state-of-the-nation address to Russia’s parliament, Medvedev unveiled potential changes that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago, proposing policies that would make it easier to run for president and register a political party.

He also launched measures to reduce corruption among public officials and return to directly elected regional governors, loosening the control over the country that his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, built up during his eight years in the top job.

The proposals showed that leaders are concerned about demonstrations that have roiled Russia in recent weeks. But they were nevertheless derided as too little, too late by organizers of the street protests. Some opposition leaders acknowledged that, on paper, Medvedev’s reforms were major but said that they doubted they would be implemented.

In his nearly four years as president, Medvedev has often played the reformist foil to Putin’s more hard-edged style, although Putin has always had the upper hand. A September announcement that Putin and Medvedev intended to swap jobs after the March presidential elections set off a wave of anger in Russia, where voters thought that Putin had abandoned all pretense of consulting them.

Medvedev acknowledged the discontent Thursday in a largely conciliatory speech.

“We should learn to respect public opinion and not force our decisions on the public,” he said.

Medvedev has just months left in office, and it is unclear what influence he retains among lawmakers, who have long deferred to Putin. Analysts suggested that any proposals Medvedev makes are likely to have Putin’s tacit consent. But Putin’s much harder line against the protesters last week made many skeptical of how real the reforms will be.

After the speech, one of Medvedev’s advisers said legislation on the political reforms would reach parliament within days, the Interfax news agency reported.

That the reforms are on the table at all is a sign of just how much the recent protests have rattled Russia’s ruling coterie. Putin’s United Russia party mustered just 49 percent of the vote in Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, down from 64.3 percent in the 2007 elections. Protesters have alleged widespread fraud even in that lackluster result.

The demonstrations, including one Dec. 10 that brought tens of thousands of people into Moscow’s chilly streets, have involved a long apolitical middle-class generation that grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union. The next protest, which organizers hope will be even bigger, is scheduled for Saturday.

Organizers predicted Thursday that Medvedev’s words will do little to lessen turnout.

“Medvedev was president for four years, and he had all opportunities to implement what he said today. But he did nothing, nothing at all,” said Ilya Yashin, a prominent opposition activist.

Yashin said he didn’t think that many of Medvedev’s reforms would be carried out. Even if they were, he said, the electoral proposals likely would not apply until election cycles after the March vote. For the parliament, the next cycle will be in four years; for the presidency, it will be six years.

Medvedev proposed lowering the bar for candidates to qualify to run for president, allowing independent contenders to qualify with 300,000 signatures instead of 2 million. If such a change were to go into effect before March, it could allow more voices in the campaign against Putin while potentially splitting the opposition vote.

Medvedev also advocated making it easier to register smaller political parties that have long been frozen out by the Kremlin.

“I hear those talking about the need for reforms and for changes,” Medvedev said. “We need to give all active citizens an opportunity to take part in political life.”

If the proposals were to be enacted tomorrow, Yashin said, “it would mean that we shouldn’t go to the streets anymore.”

“If we have a free parliament, if we have free elections, if we have free justice, a free media, it would be great,” he said.

Medvedev echoed a proposal made by Putin last week to return to directly elected regional governors, something Putin did away with in his first term as president, centralizing his grip on power. Putin also said recently that he would be open to elected governors, so long as candidates passed through a “presidential filter” that he could use to veto them. It was unclear whether this was what Medvedev was proposing.

“These changes should be transparent; they should suggest that we abide by law and order,” Medvedev said.

Another demand of the protesters is an end to corruption, which they complain is endemic to Russian society. Medvedev proposed forcing more public officials to disclose their income and said he wanted to reduce the number of contracts awarded to businesses run by the family members of public employees.

“The number of such cases in our country is enormous,” he said.

And he proposed launching an independent television channel, which would enable news and opinions that don’t toe a strict Kremlin line to reach the vast majority of households.

Still, there were limits to the amount of ground Medvedev was willing to give, and he echoed a charge that Putin made last week that the protesters were motivated by foreign agents — despite previous statements that the problem was Russia’s, not anybody else’s.

“We will not allow extremists and provocateurs to draw society into their reckless schemes,” Medvedev said. “Russia needs democracy, not chaos.”

Analysts said Thursday that they doubted the proposed reforms would be enough to keep people home from Saturday’s protest.

Russia’s leaders “are offering a compromise,” said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies. But protesters “do not trust Putin, and he’s the one who will be the next president. There will be no peaceful going away.”

 
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