MOSCOW — Rocked by mass opposition rallies, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged Thursday to slightly soften the Kremlin’s grip on power as he launches his campaign to return to the presidency in a March election.
Last Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Moscow to rail against Putin, who served as president for eight years beginning in 2000, and to protest vote fraud in recent parliamentary elections that saw Putin’s United Russia party garner nearly 50 percent of the vote.
Putin, in a 4 ½-hour live TV call-in show, refused to acknowledge election violations but said that to prevent fraud in March, he would install live web cameras at every polling station in Russia “for the whole country to see.”
The prime minister also promised to take a step toward satisfying demands for the return of direct popular elections of regional governors and senators. Years ago, Putin personally presided over the dismantling of the system of direct popular elections of such officials. But on Thursday, he suggested a compromise in which the president would pick candidates from lists presented by politi cal factions in local parliaments to be then presented to the public for a direct popular vote.
Putin also promised to allow the registration of liberal opposition parties including the Parnas party led by ex-premier Mikhail Kasyanov and ex-first vice premier Boris Nemtsov.
“We need to strengthen our political system first of all,” said Putin. “We need to expand the base of democracy in the country.
“We can do anything here,” the premier said speaking about chance of Parnas becoming an official political party. “We will be registering it, probably, (but) we need to somehow change the legislation. I repeat, we can liberalize.”
But while answering dozens of questions on the live show, Putin also managed to sound vintagely tough at times. At one point, he noted that Kasyanov’s government ministers would complain that their boss was “a swindler” and that he was often called “Misha 2 percent,” over alleged corruption deals.
Kasyanov, in a phone interview from Strasburg, responded: “Putin is nervous because mass protests in Russia, and the firm position of European Parliament and the United States that are demanding a probe in the rigged vote results and the holding of a new election, has driven him into a corner.
“His promise to finally register us is an important step in the country’s movement toward liberalization but we know it is not based on his free will,” Kasyanov added. “Far from it, Putin hates what is going on in the country now but he has to put up with this new reality.”
In his lengthy appearance Thursday, Putin also reproved famed Russian composer Sergei Prokofyev for having produced boring ballet music, diagnosed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of having mental incapacity, and compared the white ribbons worn by opposition protesters to the symbols for AIDS prevention.
He also accused “some rascals from beyond the country” of inciting riots and discontent, and lashed out at the United States for treating their allies as “vassals” and dragging them against their will in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Putin also acknowledged being booed during a recent martial arts fight appearance, saying that people could probably get tired of his face.