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Putin Warns Russia Political Reform Needs Caution

President Dmitry Medvedev (right) speaks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the development of the Russian political system in Moscow today.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Russia's political elite today that "extreme caution" was needed to avoid sowing chaos by tinkering with the political system he crafted over the past decade.

Putin gave a spirited defense of Russia's tightly controlled political system while summing up a Kremlin meeting chaired by his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, who has staked his career on political reform.

After two hours of divergent speeches at today's State Council meeting on the merits and failings of the political system, Putin weighed in at the meeting which was shown on national television.

"We should continually think about perfecting Russia's political system. But we must this area with extreme caution," the 57-year-old premier told the meeting of the council which advises the head of state on important matters.

"Any effective political system must inherently have a healthy level of conservatism. The political system must not wobble like runny jelly with every touch."

Putin is still feted as Russia's "national leader" inside his United Russia party, which holds a majority in parliament, and diplomats say the former KGB spy takes the lead on casting Russian policy, albeit with input from Medvedev.

Putin says his main achievements as Kremlin chief were to end the chaos which gripped Russia after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, bolster living standards and to distance some influential businessmen -- known as the oligarchs -- from power.

"The political wheeler dealers and the oligarch groups were pushed off the country's political stage," Putin told the meeting, which is comprised of regional leaders and key figures appointed by the president.

Russia's most popular politician warned against repeating the turmoil of neighboring Ukraine, where a tug of war between the Ukrainian leadership has deadlocked the political system.

"We simply must not allow the Ukrainization of Russia's political system, just as we must not slide the other way toward totalitarianism and despotism," Putin said.

Since Putin stepped down as president in May 2008 under constitutional limits which prevent more than two consecutive terms, Medvedev has provoked speculation about reform by repeatedly calling for a more pluralistic political system.

Next President

With the mid-point of Medvedev's presidential term approaching, analysts say he has made few significant reforms other than extending the presidential term to six years from four, which will apply to the next president.

Many analysts believe Putin will return to the Kremlin. He has said he will take a decision closer to the 2012 election.

Medvedev told the meeting that Russia's political system was "far from perfect but it does work". He offered no specific proposals for change.

Some regional governors poured praise on Putin's system saying it was a beacon for other countries, though Putin warned that reform of the law enforcement agencies was essential.

"If we will create a closed corporation we cannot control then it could lead us anywhere," Putin said.

But others, such as Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, bluntly told the Kremlin leadership that the political system was broken and the electoral system corrupt.

"Without control from below the executive cannot work -- it is decomposing and breaking up," Zyuganov said, adding that the Soviet Communist Party allowed more dialogue than Putin's United Russia party.

Opposition leaders said they appreciated the rare opportunity to challenge Putin openly in a meeting shown on state television, a change they attributed to Medvedev.

"There is a lot of openness under Medvedev," Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the opposition Yabloko party, told Reuters. "But so far it has only turned into something extremely cautious, almost cosmetic measures."

The State Council, in its role as an advisory body within the system of state power, was first formed as part of the liberal reforms undertaken by Tsar Alexander I.

The State Council considers issues of particular importance to the state, such as the development of governmental institutions and economic and social reforms.