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Medvedev Refuses to Change Political System at Rare Talks

President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday promised a few cosmetic changes to the political system but firmly defended the results of disputed regional elections in October and the country’s much-criticized election system.

Medvedev, who articulated his allegiance to the course of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, spoke during the first meeting on Russia's political system in at least a decade. The meeting of the State Council was attended by the leaders of all seven of the country's registered political parties and a group of governors.

“In general, the results of the regional elections reflect the real balance of the political forces and public sympathies in the country. This is an irrefutable fact,” Medvedev said.

He said complaints about massive violations in favor of United Russia during the Oct. 11 elections — which prompted all of the parties represented in the State Duma except United Russia to stage a brief boycott and were well documented by the national media and independent observers — were “nevertheless unconfirmed.”

Every party leader with the exception of Putin and Boris Gryzlov, who heads United Russia, spoke at length about the October violations, but Medvedev told the party leaders “to refrain from making sweeping accusations of the election system.”

This suggests, said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, that Medvedev does not want to be an independent politician.

"He has indicated that the current electoral system suits him," Oreshkin said by telephone.

"If the president wants to act independently, he has to get support from the popular vote, which means that the electoral system should work honestly," he added. "But Medvedev is not going to that in order to avoid a conflict with the ruling bureaucracy."

Under the current electoral system, fashioned by Putin, the country's leadership views bureaucrats as its power base and appeals to them rather than to the popular masses, he said.

Medvedev, who thanked United Russia for its work at Friday's meeting, expressed bewilderment at the low level of public support shown to other parties. While United Russia dominates municipal and regional legislative bodies, the Communists on average hold only 2 percent of the seats there, and the Just Russia and Liberal Democrat parties have about 1 percent each, he said.

“This is an astonishing situation," Medvedev said. "It tells us that our parties, mainly the opposition ones, are working very badly on the municipal level and real political competition is absent there."

Election observers concur that the most blatant violations occur during local elections, which are controlled by local authorities who, in turn, are under pressure to secure high numbers for United Russia.

Trying to sweeten the pill for other parties, Medvedev said Friday that he had sent a bill to the State Duma that fixes the entry threshold for parties participating in regional elections to 5 percent.

The proposed threshold, however, may not help opposition parties in regions where election officials manipulate the results according to the wishes of regional bosses vying to please the Kremlin. For example, Kabardino-Balkaria set the threshold at 7 percent for its regional legislative elections last spring, and the Communists slipped in with 7.02 percent of the vote while the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR, got left out with 6.95 percent.

Both Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin warned the party leaders Friday to preserve political stability in Russia. Putin even urged the leaders not to copy Ukraine's model of democracy, where tough competition among politicians for popular support has effectively led to political paralysis.

“We have to think constantly about how to develop the Russian political system, but we have to act carefully and shouldn’t allow the 'Ukrainization' of our political life,” Putin said.

Putin also said Russia should refrain from the another extreme, the “totalitarianism and despotism” that have emerged in other former Soviet republics. He did not identify any countries.

The party leaders, who were asked earlier this month to prepare proposals for Friday's meeting, offered a number of ideas, not all of which were related to the political system.

Speaking for his A Just Russia, a Kremlin project aimed at collecting votes from left-leaning Russians, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov called for reforms to the Interior Ministry and for the State Duma to have more clout over the executive branch of government.

On the elections, Mironov said A Just Russia wanted to ban early voting and balloting outside of polling stations; to allow voters to track their own votes on the Internet; and to change the current system where regional leaders appoint members to a regional election committee to one where each committee has an equal number of delegates from all political parties.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called for parties to receive better representation on state television, but he mainly spoke of how regional elections are unashamedly rigged in favor of United Russia.

Gryzlov, who opened his remarks by saying his United Russia would not let anyone destroy Russia’s “developed political system,” proposed that all regions have only one chamber of parliament and that the number of lawmakers and federal officials be slashed by 20 percent in the regions.

LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested that no civil servant be allowed to hold the same post for more than 10 years and that no political party be permitted to hold more than 40 percent of the seats in a legislative body.

“Then we will have a stable, healthy democracy, and we will ruin the appetite to return to a one-party system,” he said.

He also supported a ban on early voting.

The current political system was sharply criticized by Yabloko chief Sergei Mitrokhin, who compared it to the Soviet system and said it is “aimed toward the degradation and stagnation of the country.” Mitrokhin called for a free media, agreed with Mironov’s idea about reforming election committees and suggested making vote rigging a crime punishable by prison time.

Medvedev gave no indication that he would consider the party leaders' proposals.

Sergei Markov, a senior Duma deputy with United Russia, told The Moscow Times that any political changes will be made gradually to avoid the possible damage caused by fast reforms.

“There will be a wait-and-see attitude after each small step in order to understand what is happening with the parties that are given this or that preference,” he said.

With a weak civil society, the political system has to be built and managed from above, Markov said.

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