MOSCOW — A former Cabinet member close to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Friday for a rerun of the country's fraud-tinged parliamentary elections, an apparent bid to soothe public outrage as Putin seeks to reclaim the presidency.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in his blog that the government must open a dialogue with the opposition on holding a repeat ballot under a revised electoral law. The statement appears aimed at stealing the opposition's thunder to prevent a challenge to Putin in March presidential elections.
Tens of thousands of protesters have rallied in Moscow to demand a rerun of the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote and urge an end to Putin's 12-year rule. It has been the largest outpouring of public anger since the Soviet collapse two decades ago.
While Putin faces no serious rivals in the presidential vote, the protests signaled a sharp drop in his popularity that would make it hard for him to garner more than 50 percent of ballots to avoid a runoff. Any evidence of fraud in the vote similar to the ballot-stuffing and other violations that helped Putin's party hang onto its majority in the parliamentary polls could also fuel outrage that would make it hard for Putin to retain power.
Kudrin said authorities must acknowledge that the Dec. 4 parliamentary election was flawed, warning that failure to do so would undermine the legitimacy of the presidential vote.
"Without the acknowledgment that the parliamentary election was unfair, the fairness of the presidential vote will be thrown into doubt, irrespective of how honest it might be," he said.
Kudrin said the government and the opposition must conduct a dialogue on changing the electoral rules and laws on political parties. But, he added, the opposition push to unseat Putin could end in turmoil.
"An attempt to simultaneously reform two branches of power ... would entail too big risks for the country," he said.
He argued that it would take the opposition between 1 1/2 and 2 years to field a united candidate who would be capable to compete with Putin.
Kudrin was forced out of the Cabinet in September after 10 years following a public spat over spending with President Dmitry Medvedev. He has been widely hailed for his conservative fiscal policies that helped soften the blow of the 2008-2009 global downturn in Russia. Putin hailed Kudrin's expertise and said they have remained friends.
Kudrin's statement follows his speech at a protest rally in Moscow last month that drew about 100,000 people. He told business daily Vedomosti that he had met with Putin prior to the rally to propose serving as a mediator between the protesters and the government.
Putin so far has ruled out holding a rerun parliamentary vote and said the opposition lacks a common platform and clear leaders to talk to. But in a sign that the government was nervously looking for a strategy to respond to protests, Putin's stand-in, Medvedev, has rolled out a project of political reform envisaging the return of direct elections of provincial governors and easing registration rules for political parties.
In another recent move apparently intended to assuage protesters, Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin political strategist seen as a top architect of Putin's "managed democracy" has been re-assigned to a non-political post.