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Russia's president offers reforms in final state of the nation speech

December 22, 2011 | 11:44 am

REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- In his final state of the nation speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday promised a series of political reforms apparently aimed at muting widespread public anger over recent disputed parliamentary elections.

The reforms, if they become law, would reverse some of the political changes made over the last 12 years as Vladimir Putin ruled Russia, first as president before shifting to prime minister four years ago due to term limits. Putin is widely expected to reclaim the presidency in March 4 elections.

In his address to parliament, Medvedev said Russia “needs democracy” and “faith in the future and justice.” He promised reforms that would “offer all active citizens a legitimate possibility to take part in political life.”

Medvedev called for restoring direct election of the nation’s governors, altering a Putin-era system under which the Kremlin filled those positions. He also promised to simplify the current complex and prohibitive system of registering political parties, which in recent years kept about a dozen liberal opposition parties from competing with the Kremlin and its loyalists in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Medvedev proposed a drastic reduction of the number of petition signatures needed to register a presidential candidate, from 2 million to 300,000; a return to proportional representation of provinces in parliament; and creation of an independent public television network on par with major channels controlled by the Kremlin.

The changes would “make the country’s political system more efficient and better representing the interests of our country’s citizens,” Medvedev said to the applause of lawmakers, a majority of whom are from the ruling United Russia party. “These changes are especially important on the eve of the most significant event: the election of Russia’s president.”

United Russia lost its overwhelming dominance of parliament in elections early this month but still holds a slim majority of seats. The elections were marred by accusations of widespread ballot-stuffing and questions about whether even the party’s bare control of parliament is legitimate.

The election results brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow and other cities in a wave of demonstrations that challenged Putin’s heavy-handed rule. They were dubbed by some as the “Russian Winter,” an echo of the “Arab Spring” transforming the Middle East.

Even if the changes proposed by Medvedev are approved and introduced in the coming weeks, they would not likely affect the presidential race. The preliminary list of candidates has already been filed and features no opposition leader seen as capable of challenging Putin.

Some experts said Thursday that the proposed reforms, which would restore some elements of the post-Soviet democratic system dismantled by Putin over the last decade, were being offered up as a maneuver to appease the protesters.

“How can we trust what Medvedev promises today if he is going out in a few months’ time?” asked Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center. “All these proposed changes are meant to happen in an uncertain period in the future as their fulfillment will solely depend on Putin, who in his own right has no obligation to carry them through.”

Opposition leaders, who were preparing for large protests promised around the country Saturday, called Medvedev’s proposals a victory for their movement but warned against trusting the government’s intentions. They demanded that the Kremlin first cancel results of the recent parliamentary elections.

“The authorities demonstrated today that they are scared of our numbers, of our drive and resolve, but I wouldn’t put a penny on what Medvedev promised today,” said Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader who was freed Tuesday night after spending 15 days in jail for protesting the election results. “Medvedev, who has had four years at his disposal to introduce democratization, is pledging to do it now only to lull the opposition and win time to allow Putin to get his act together for the presidential race.”

Yashin said the opposition expects at least 50,000 protesters in Moscow alone on Saturday. Almost 40,000 have already signed up to participate via Facebook.

Even pro-Kremlin experts said the government could no longer ignore the political changes in Russian society. But they put a more positive spin on Medvedev’s proposals, saying they were part of plans to grant more democratic freedoms.

“The country has changed so much in recent years that a whole new class has emerged representing people who no longer depend on the state, and their opinion can no longer be ignored,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a member of the Presidential Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory board. “But if the country feels that it is a victory of the radical opposition forces, that can lead to a serious political crisis which can undermine and discredit the coming presidential election."

Medvedev in his speech also warned against “attempts to manipulate the citizens of Russia” and hinted at foreign influence over the opposition.

“We will not let instigators and extremists involve society in their reckless activities,” he said, “and we will not allow interference in our internal affairs.”


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Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, arrives to deliver his last state of the nation address in Moscow on Thursday. Credit: Vladimir Rodionov / Associated Press / RIA-Novosti