Medvedev unveils Russia reform but warns 'extremists'
President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday warned that "provocateurs and extremists" were seeking to stir unrest in Russia, as he unveiled a drive for political reform in response to an outburst of protests.
Two days ahead of a new mass rally accusing the authorities of rigging parliamentary elections, he proposed a range of political reforms including the resumption of direct elections of local governors.
But in his last state-of-the-nation address before his expected handover of the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin next year, Medvedev also warned that Russia would not allow its biggest protest wave in years to destabilise the country.
"Attempts to manipulate Russian citizens, lead them astray and incite strife in society are unacceptable," Medvedev told both houses of parliament. "Russia needs democracy and not chaos."
"We will not allow provocateurs and extremists to drag society into their schemes," Medvedev said, adding: "We will not allow interference from outside in our internal affairs."
Medvedev's address came after December 4 parliamentary elections showed an unexpectedly sharp dip in support for the ruling party and were followed by mass protests against vote-rigging.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets a week after the elections to protest the conduct of the polls while almost 40,000 people have vowed on Facebook to attend a new protest in Moscow on Saturday.
It was Medvedev's last Federal Assembly address before he steps down for Putin -- currently prime minister -- to take his place after March polls. The arrangement has angered the opposition for being cooked up behind closed doors.
But in a clear attempt to show the protestors that he was serious about democratic development in Russia, he announced reforms that appeared aimed at breathing new life into its political system.
Crucially, he proposed the resumption of elections for Russia's regional governors, whose abolition by Putin in 2004 has long been seen by analysts as one of modern Russia's greatest democratic shortcomings.
Under the current system, the Kremlin chooses new governors from a shortlist presented by the ruling party. The appointment is then rubber-stamped by the local parliament.
"I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system," Medvedev said. "I would like to say that I hear those who are talking about political changes, and I understand them."
He also proposed a cut in the signatures required for a candidate to register for presidential elections from the current two million to 300,000 for candidates from parliamentary parties and 100,000 for those not represented in parliament.
He said the rules for party registration should be simplified so that an application from 500 people from at least half Russia's regions would be sufficient to register a party.
The president said Russia should create a "public television" where neither the state nor the private owner has the ultimate influence.
"These are necessary reforms of the political system -- so that it can survive," said analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "These measures will give a start to reform. The question is if it's too late."
With a growing middle class and people increasingly using the Internet to criticise the authorities, Medvedev acknowledged that Russian society was in a state of change.
"We understand criticism and accept criticism with respect. The right of people to express their position with all legal means is guaranteed," Medvedev said.
"The fact that society is changing and citizens are more actively expressing their positions and making demands on the authorities is a good sign."
A pro-reform think tank said Thursday that Russia's political system had become increasingly divorced from the social reality in the country while its leaders had little idea how to respond.
"Russian society does not just want to know its future but to have a say on where the authorities want to take it," the directors of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) said in a commentary for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.
Medvedev, who portrays himself as a champion of modernising the Russian economy, said Russia had to sharpen its competiveness due to a global economic depression that "could last several years".
"The competition for the minds, the ideas, the resources -- it will only get stiffer and we are in the epicentre of this race," he said.
© 2011 AFP