SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev told Russia's dominant party to prepare for challenges to its rule, suggesting the Kremlin was ready to ease its grip on the regions to try to defuse social tension.
"United Russia is a leading political party now," Medvedev told its leaders, who came to his Black Sea residence in Sochi to present their candidates for gubernatorial elections in the Sverdlov region of the Urals in October. "This situation is not forever," he added.
Political analysts said a relaxation of the Kremlin's hold over the regions was a response to growing social tension and designed to create a safety valve for resentment towards Moscow.
Under the law as it stands, the president nominates the heads of 85 Russian regions for subsequent approval by local legislatures. The latest amendments mean the local majority party rather than Kremlin envoys would present candidates for nomination.
"Other parties, if they succeed in the polls, will have similar rights” to propose candidates, Medvedev told United Russia leaders, whose party now controls virtually all regional parliaments. "This will help develop political competition."
Medvedev's predecessor and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is the leader of United Russia, although he does not hold any position in it.
Critics have accused Putin, whose eight-year term as president coincided with an economic boom based on high energy prices, of concentrating power in the hands of the Kremlin and tolerating no opposition.
During his presidency, hitherto elected regional governors became Kremlin-nominated officials. New election rules made it practically impossible for opposition parties to win seats in federal or parliamentary legislatures.
Medvedev, who took office last year, has said Russia needs a more flexible political system.
He has ordered a lowering of the threshold of votes needed to earn a seat in parliament and giving opposition parties greater opportunities to win seats.
He told United Russia leaders changes to the rules for nominating governors were intended to make the process more transparent and give local political parties a bigger say.
"We have a special day today, new democratic times are beginning," he said. "This is a step towards developing democracy in our country."
According to analysts, the Kremlin's proposals were intended to defuse social tension, fuelled by the economic crisis, without sacrificing overall control of the provinces.
"In the days of economic boom, people eagerly voted for United Russia, which they associated with the Kremlin," said Masha Lipman of Carnegies Moscow said.
"Now that they feel unhappy, they need a way to express their dissatisfaction," she added. "United Russia is doomed to losing some of its popularity, and letting in mainstream opposition could help keep things under control.
Local council elections in 15 regions will take place against the backdrop of falling living standards and growing unemployment.
Shrinking reserves have forced the government to resort to unpopular action. On August 19, it said it would not raise pensions and wages next year for state employees, who comprise a considerable portion of Russia's workforce.
"Of course, we will not see fully free and fair elections in October, and the United Russia is still strong enough to resist pressure," Lipman said. "But we will perhaps be able to see new faces, new elements in the race."