MOSCOW — President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday responded to the wave of protests over fraud-tainted election, proposing a set of reforms to liberalize Russia's political system, but sternly warning that the government won't allow "provocateurs and extremists" to threaten stability.
Medvedev said in his state-of-the nation address that Russia "needs democracy, not chaos" and that the government would strongly resist foreign pressure.
The statement follows massive rallies against fraud in the Dec. 4 vote, in which the main Kremlin party, United Russia, lost a quarter of its seats. Opposition leaders and independent election monitors said United Russia only managed to retain its majority by fraud.
A rally in Moscow drew tens of thousands demanding a repeat vote and punishment for the officials involved in fraud, the largest show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Another massive rally is set for this weekend.
The protests dented the power of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and signaled that his bid to reclaim the presidency in next March's election may not be as trouble-free as had been thought.
Both Putin and Medvedev, who has been his loyal placeholder, firmly rejected the calls for a rerun, saying the vote reflected the people's will. Putin has accused the United States of fomenting the protests in order to weaken Russia, and Medvedev has rejected U.S. criticism of the vote.
"We won't allow provocateurs and extremists to drag society into their adventures, and we won't allow any outside interference into our domestic affairs," Medvedev said Thursday.
While defending the vote results, Putin has suggested easing the tight controls on Russia's political life he introduced during his two presidential terms in 2000-2008.
He said last week he would support easing the draconian rules of registration for political parties and restoring the direct elections of governors he abolished years ago. Putin added, however, that the president would retain the power to approve gubernatorial candidates, a provision that would make the election token.
Medvedev repeated the pledge to return to direct elections of governors and spelled out Putin's promise to ease registration rules for political parties. He said that a group of 500 people representing more than half of Russia's provinces would be allowed to register a party — a significant simplification of the current arcane procedure that requires a party to have at least 45,000 members and makes it easy for authorities to deny registration to opposition groups.
Medvedev also proposed reducing the number of signatures a candidate must collect to get on the presidential ballot from 2 million to 300,000.
The opposition, however, would only be able to take advantage of the new procedures in the next election cycle.
"Medvedev's address is like an injection in an artificial limb," tweeted Oleg Kashin, a columnist at the Kommersant daily.
Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, said that Medvedev's proposals were welcome but insufficient, adding that Saturday's rally will continue to push for a repeat election.
"We wouldn't have heard any of these proposals if there hadn't been protests," Nemtsov said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
On the Internet, many argued for keeping pressure on the government to bring more democratic changes. Over 39,000 already have signed up on Facebook for Saturday's rally.
"Well, they threw some bones to us," Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International in Russia, said on Twitter. "Now we can either try to build something good out of them or demand the rest of the skeleton."
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.