In an apparent attempt to stem rising public discontent with the ruling elite, President Dmitry Medvedev has called for a comprehensive reform of Russia's political system, including a resumption of the direct election of regional governors.
Medvedev's comments in his annual state-of-the-nation speech came as the country braces for a mass antigovernment protest in Moscow on December 24 that is expected to attract tens of thousands of demonstrators. Similar protests are being organized in other Russian cities, too.
"I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system. I would like to say that I have listened to those who have been speaking about the need for changes and I do understand them," Medvedev said.
"We need to give all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life."
Leaders of the protest movement welcomed Medvedev's reform proposals, which also included easing the rules for registering candidates for president and parties running for the State Duma.
But many expressed skepticism that they would be enacted or said the proposed reforms were too little, too late.
"Medvedev has taken a step forward, but he has made proposals that don't solve the main problem -- the problem of the legitimacy of the authorities," Vladimir Ryzhkov, head of the unregistered Party of People's Freedom, told RFE/RL. "These proposals are not enough."
Russia's political elite has been on the defensive since allegations of mass voter fraud in the State Duma elections on December 4.
The ruling United Russia lost a quarter of its seats in those elections but managed to maintain its majority in parliament. Opposition leaders and independent election monitors say the party only managed to retain control of the Duma by fraud.
An estimated 40,000 protesters turned out in downtown Moscow on December 10 for the largest anti-Kremlin demonstration since the early 1990s and at least that many are expected for another rally on December 24.
'Democracy, Not Chaos'
In addition to restoring the direct election of governors -- which Vladimir Putin abolished in 2004, when he was president -- Medvedev also proposed a series of other reforms.
He suggested reducing the number of signatures required for candidates to participate in presidential elections as well as easing the rules for registering political parties. He also proposed having half of the State Duma elected in single-mandate districts. Currently, the entire Duma is elected by party list.
Sergei Mironov. leader of the center-left A Just Russia and a candidate in the March presidential elections, expressed cautious optimism about the proposals.
"I am glad that the president took a lot of ideas from the Just Russia party and he voiced them in his address," Mironov said. "As they say in Russia, and not only in Russia, 'The devil is in the details.' We need to wait for particular legislative initiatives, for particular decisions, and we will monitor them closely."
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the second largest faction in the State Duma, was less upbeat.
"We can express any good wishes, but, as it is widely known, the road to hell is paved with good wishes," Zyuganov said. "I did not hear a single word about where we would get the money to solve our problems, how we would develop the sectors that bring revenues to the budget."
Presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich told Interfax that the reforms would be sent to the State Duma “within the next few days.” It was unclear when the legislature would begin debating them.
Saying Russia "needs democracy, not chaos," Medvedev acknowledged the rights of protesters, but added that attempts to sow unrest would not be tolerated.
"The right of people to express themselves by all legitimate means is guaranteed, but attempts to manipulate the citizens of Russia, mislead them, incite social discord in society, is unacceptable," he said.
Putin sat between newly elected State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin and Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko in the front row of the gilded Kremlin hall. He applauded Medvedev’s plans for reform.
Echoing earlier allegations by Putin that the protesters were incited by foreign powers, particularly the United States, Medvedev warned against outside attempts to meddle in Russia's affairs.
"We will not let provocateurs and extremists involve society in their adventures, and will not allow foreign interference in our internal affairs," Medvedev said.
The state-of-the nation speech was Medvedev's last as president. He is expected to be appointed prime minister if Putin returns to the Kremlin, but analysts say Medvedev is short of political capital.
On Russia’s liberal blogosphere, there was widespread skepticism that Medvedev’s reforms would ever materialize. Oleg Kozyrev, a blogger close the protest movement, wrote a sarcastic post listing Medvedev's “Top 8” unsuccessful initiatives as president, including his order to find the attackers of journalist Oleg Kashin and an attempt to halt a controversial highway through Moscow's Khimki Forest, which was hotly opposed by ecologists.
written by Tom Balmforth; with additional agency reporting