MOSCOW President Dmitry Medvedev called on Thursday for comprehensive reform of Russia's political system to try to appease protesters staging the biggest demonstrations since Vladimir Putin rose to power 12 years ago.
In his last state of the nation address to parliament as president, Medvedev outlined plans that would ease the Kremlin's tight grip on power, including restoring the election of regional governors and allowing half the seats in the State Duma lower house of parliament to be directly elected in the regions.
His opponents, preparing for new protests across Russia on Saturday, dismissed his offer as the empty promises of a lame-duck president who is stepping aside for Putin to return to the main seat of power next year after four years as premier.
"Today, at a new stage in the development of our state, supporting the initiative proposed by our prime minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, I propose a comprehensive reform of our political system," Medvedev told rows of deputies in an hour-long speech which was greeted by occasional applause.
"I want to say that I hear those who talk about the need for change, and understand them. We need to give all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life."
The moves were intended to address calls for change by tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since a December 4 election which they say was rigged, but Medvedev and Putin have ignored their main demand - to rerun the poll.
An aide said the proposals would be sent to parliament in the next few days.
But the opposition dismissed them as more empty words by a man who had failed to carry out his promises since he was ushered into the presidency by Putin in 2008 because the constitution barred his mentor from a third successive term.
"It's an answer to the protests, but it's not enough. It's half-hearted," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, who took part in a big protest on December 10 at Moscow's Bolotnaya Square and is helping plan another rally on Saturday at the capital's Sakharov Avenue.
"The main demand at Bolotnaya was to scrap the election results and call for new elections to be conducted according to new rules. Instead, he is trying to preserve the illegitimate Duma. This will not be accepted by society and will not be accepted by those on Sakharov Avenue."
NO WAY TO GET TOOTHPASTE BACK IN THE TUBE
Medvedev, 46, had already called for an overhaul of the political system at a meeting with his United Russia party on Saturday but provided few details of his plans.
Putin said last week that he was ready to consider allowing the election of regional governors, provided their candidacy was approved by the Kremlin. The former KGB spy had abolished the direct election of regional governors in 2004 to tighten his control of Russia's often independent-minded regions.
In his speech in a gilded Kremlin hall to members of the Duma and the Federation Council upper chamber, Medvedev said there should be a simpler process for registering parties - allowing more parties to take part.
He also proposed scrapping the requirement to gather signatures to participate in elections to the Duma and regional legislative organs, and suggested reducing the number of signatures required to run for president.
Medvedev called for the creation of an independent "public" television channel. Putin has closely controlled state television and Russian media have been criticised for all but ignoring the mass protests against his rule.
The protesters, many of them young professionals who have answered calls to protests on social network sites, say Medvedev and Putin, 59, are out of touch and cannot get away with just tinkering with a political system the prime minister dominates.
"All this was necessary to legitimise the results of the December 4 election and the coming presidential election ... It is an intentional lie and it is misguiding," said independent political analyst Sergei Belkovsky.
Comparing the proposals to the "perestroika" reforms that failed to save the Soviet Union, he said "you cannot get toothpaste back in the tube ... The system is decomposing. They are frantically trying to find ways to preserve it, but these chaotic measures just bring it closer to the end."
(Reporting By Timothy Heritage; editing by Elizabeth Piper)