Russia’s biggest protest yet is expected this weekend in Moscow. With an ear to Russia’s discontent on the street, President Dmitry Medvedev has unveiled changes to widen democracy in Russia.
In his last state-of-the-nation speech as president, Medvedev promised direct elections for governors, a politically independent state-run TV channel, and drastically eased rules for the registration of new political parties and presidential candidates.
No new genuine opposition party has been allowed in Russia since now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000.
An aide said legislation would be submitted within days to Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament, the Duma. He predicted it would be passed into law within the six months remaining in President Medvedev’s term.
Speaking as Prime Minister Putin sat impassively in the front row of a red carpet and gold-leaf hall in the Kremlin, Russia’s president extended an olive branch to Russia’s restive middle class.
Medvedev said he hears those who talk about the need for change and understands them.
The new Duma speaker of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, said later the measures were not being taken in response to the street protests. But twice in the last year, Russia’s president told reporters that direct elections for governor were more than a decade away.
Opposition leaders responded that the reform package was a last-minute attempt to curtail public protest by a president whose term is coming to an end.
Almost 50,000 people have indicated on a Facebook page that they will attend a mass rally scheduled Saturday in Moscow.
An independent journalist who spoke two weeks ago at the last major rally, Oleg Kashin, responded Thursday by tweeting on the Internet, "Medvedev's address is like an injection in an artificial limb."
In response to the speech, the Party of People’s Freedom, a major protest organizer, updated its demands.
They ask for the firing of Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission. Opposition figures say widespread fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections raised the ruling party’s return from one-third of the vote to one-half.
The new parliament had its first session on Wednesday, but protest leaders say it should be seen as a transitional Duma and new parliamentary elections should be held next year.
The key new demand is to postpone presidential elections for two months to allow a real opposition candidate to run against Vladimir Putin.
Driving Russia’s protest movement is the knowledge there is a narrow window to prevent Putin’s election to a six-year presidential term. Presidential elections are to be held March 4.
In this political chess game, Putin also made a key move.
He named Sergei Ivanov, a close ally and longtime friend from their days together as KGB officers, to be the new presidential chief of staff. Political analysts see this as Putin’s move to take early and direct control of the Kremlin apparatus prior to the presidential elections.