New York Times News Service
MOSCOW — It finally happened: President Dmitry Medvedev, the man who was supposed to embody the aspirations of young middle-class Russians, has outlined a concrete and substantive agenda for political change.
In his last state-of-the-nation speech before leaving office, Medvedev on Thursday recommended returning to the direct election of governors, removing officials' wives and children from the leadership of lucrative corporations and creating a public television station protected from the Kremlin's manipulation, among other changes.
If carried out, the proposals would be a step toward dismantling the highly centralized government built over 10 years by his mentor, Vladimir V. Putin.
It is a strange twist that these ideas are being embraced only now, when the Kremlin has found itself under pressure from an upstart protest movement, which has planned another huge demonstration Saturday. Medvedev's proposals come at the tail end of his presidency, long after the capital's liberals had swallowed their disappointment and given up on the notion that Putin's system would be altered.
"If these reforms had been initiated three years ago, this would be a completely different situation," said television host Vladimir V. Pozner, who said he had been lobbying for the creation of a public television station for seven years. "It would not be a dangerous situation. But now, people realize these guys are running scared, and they're talking about this because they're afraid."
The Kremlin was clearly on guard against the notion that Medvedev's proposals were concessions to the protesters who gathered Dec. 10 at Bolotnaya Square. A little more than an hour after Medvedev finished speaking, Sergei Naryshkin, the newly appointed as speaker of the lower house of Parliament, specifically addressed this question.
"Some people are saying these proposals emerged under pressure of Bolotnaya, but this is not so," said Naryshkin, who until recently was Medvedev's chief of staff. "I can say that these ideas were being prepared back in the summer and were actively discussed at the level of the president and the prime minister."
The changes Medvedev outlined have been sought for many years by the capital's liberal establishment. They roll back steps Putin took a decade ago, when he began systematically gutting the institutions that served as a counterweight to the presidency.
He wrested state control over the country's three influential television networks, in two cases by driving their billionaire owners out of the country and opening criminal cases against them. He strengthened his control over Russia's vast territory by eliminating the election of governors in favor of direct appointments, ensuring the loyalty of regional kingpins. He raised the threshold for political parties to get into Parliament, guaranteeing a small and docile spectrum of public politicians.
Medvedev said his proposals were inspired by popular discontent with the political system.
"I'd like to say that I hear all those who are speaking about the necessity of change," Medvedev said.