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.