By Ria Novosti
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended recent elections won by his party that critics charge were unfair, but also promised he would liberalize Russian politics if elected president next March.
The outcome of Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections “reflect the real distribution of forces in the country,” Putin asserted during a four-and-a-half hour live television question and answer session with Russians nationwide.
His comments came five days after tens of thousands of people turned out for one of the largest opposition demonstrations of the past two decades in protest at the conduct and result of the vote which they charge was fraught with cheating in favor of Putin’s United Russia party.
Putin, who last month accepted United Russia’s nomination as its candidate in presidential elections due in March, said there was “nothing unusual” in the fact that his party lost support in the recent vote. The fact that United Russia nonetheless managed barely to hang onto a thin majority was “a good indicator” of popular political sentiment in the country, he said.
While the Russian leader staked out familiar turf on many policy issues – mistrust of the West, a focus on strengthening the state and disdain for grass-roots protests against his leadership – he also signaled that he was prepared to loosen the reins in some areas of political life.
“If the citizens entrust me with the highest post in the country, the post of the president, I will undoubtedly work with everyone,” Putin said.
He said in particular that he was willing to look at ways to make it easier for more opposition parties to participate in politics and options for making election of regional governors more representative.
Putin also said that if reelected to the presidency he would be willing to consider a pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former head of the Yukos oil firm, provided Khodorkovsky acknowledged his guilt – something he has said in the past that he would not do.
Putin served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008 and during that time he consolidated authority in a strong executive branch, sidelining or abolishing many other political actors ranging from opposition parties to the legislature.
Putin opened the broadcast Thursday with the most burning question of the moment concerning his attitude toward the recent mass opposition rally in central Moscow.
In remarks that sometimes varied starkly in tone, he at one point praised the mostly young protesters for “clearly formulating” their views in public only to say that some participants had been paid and comparing symbolic white ribbons worn by some on their lapels to condoms.
Putin said that he believed that the main goal of protests last week was to delegitimize the March presidential vote that he is widely expected to win.
In the meantime, he did not say whether he would agree to protesters’ demands including investigation of election officials who allegedly participated in vote rigging and sacking the head of the central election commission, Vladimir Churov.
At no point during the lengthy session did Putin mention his hand-picked successor in the Kremlin, President Dmitry Medvedev, by name, even when he was asked about Medvedev initiatives such as police reform.
Putin however said Russians have a right to protest as long as they remain within the law but warned they should not get involved in “schemes” aimed at destabilizing the country.
“Sure, there are people who have a Russian passport but act in interests of a foreign state and for foreign money,” Putin said.
He said that authorities should also have dialogue with such people but complained this was often “useless and impossible.”
“What can I say in this case? I can say ‘Come to me, bandarlogs’,” Putin said, citing python Kaa from Rudyard Kipling’s classic “Jungle Book” – a character who lured monkeys before suffocating them.
Asked why not a single opposition party was registered over the past several years, Putin said that the Party of People’s Freedom, led by a former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, could be registered eventually. In Russia, parties cannot participate in legislative elections if they are not registered by the government.
Putin said strengthening the Russian state would be his top priority if returned to the presidency as expected, along with democratization and modernization of the country’s economic and political systems.
He did not provide details on how he would achieve these goals, but rather floated several ideas such as re-establishing a Nationalities Ministry to grapple with the growing threat of ethnic nationalism.
In another unexpected proposal, Putin suggested abandoning the procedure in which the president nominates regional governors who are then confirmed by regional parliaments, suggesting instead that the second step could be a straight popular vote.
Putin said he opposed imposing any restrictions on the Internet – a clear departure from aspirations already voiced by the country’s law enforcement and security officials.
Asked by the political analyst Nikolai Zlobin why Russia had lost foreign allies in recent years, Putin said that Russia still had many but did not identify one. Instead, he lashed out at the United States.
“It occurs to me often that America doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals,” he said, claiming that the United States had forced other countries to join its military effort in Afghanistan without consulting with them.
“They made a strike and then started pulling in others, saying ‘whoever is not with us is against us,’” he said.