Medvedev unveils Russia reforms

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday unveiled political reforms in response to an outburst of protests, but warned that "provocateurs and extremists" were seeking to stir unrest in the country.

Two days ahead of a new mass rally accusing the authorities of rigging this month's parliamentary elections, he proposed a range of reforms including the resumption of direct elections of local governors.

But in his last state-of-the-nation address before his expected handover of the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin next year, Medvedev warned that the authorities would not allow its biggest protest wave in years to destabilize Russia.

"Attempts to manipulate Russian citizens, lead them astray and incite strife in society are unacceptable," Medvedev told both houses of parliament. "Russia needs democracy and not chaos."

"We will not allow provocateurs and extremists to drag society into their schemes," Medvedev said. Taking aim at the West, he added: "We will not allow interference from outside in our internal affairs."

Medvedev's address came after December 4 parliamentary elections showed an unexpectedly sharp dip in support for the ruling party and were followed by mass protests against vote-rigging.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets a week after the elections to protest the conduct of the polls while almost 40,000 people have vowed on Facebook to attend a new protest in Moscow on Saturday.

It was Medvedev's last Federal Assembly address before he steps down for Putin -- currently prime minister -- to take his place after March polls. The arrangement has angered the opposition for being cooked up behind closed doors.

But in a clear attempt to show the protesters that he had heard their message, he announced reforms that appeared aimed at breathing new life into its political system.

The Vedomosti daily reported this week that the draft had undergone major changes after the elections and it was originally to concentrate on Medvedev's achievements as president rather than future political reforms.

Crucially, Medvedev proposed the resumption of elections for Russia's regional governors, whose abolition by Putin in 2004 has long been seen by analysts as one of modern Russia's greatest democratic shortcomings.

Under the current system, the Kremlin chooses new governors from a shortlist presented by the ruling party. The appointment is then rubber-stamped by the local parliament.

"I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system," Medvedev said. "I would like to say that I hear those who are talking about political changes, and I understand them."

He also proposed a cut in the signatures required for a candidate to register for presidential elections from the current two million to 300,000 for candidates from parliamentary parties and 100,000 for those not represented in parliament.

He said the rules for party registration should be simplified so that an application from 500 people from at least half Russia's regions would be sufficient to register a party.

The president said Russia should create a "public television" where neither the state nor the private owner has the ultimate influence.

"These are necessary reforms of the political system -- so that it can survive," said analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "These measures will give a start to reform. The question is if it's too late."

The new reform drive had first been alluded to by Putin in a televised phone-in last week, and its formal announcement by Medvedev was a clear sign of how closely Russia's two leaders coordinate their moves.

Medvedev also Thursday named former defence minister and KGB agent Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff, who like the new speaker of parliament Sergei Naryshkin is seen as a member of Putin's inner circle.

A pro-reform think tank said Russia's political system had become increasingly divorced from the social reality in the country while its leaders still had little idea how to respond.

"Russian society does not just want to know its future but to have a say on where the authorities want to take it," the directors of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) said in a commentary for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

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