President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday rejected claims that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's imminent return to the presidency would further strengthen authoritarian trends in Russia and take the country back to its Soviet past.
Putin's decision to run in March's presidential election has drawn widespread warnings of a repetition of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year rule, known for the political and economic stagnation that set the stage for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The analogies are lame, they make no sense," Medvedev said during a meeting with supporters. "We are living in another country, we aren't the same and we have another social and economic order."
Medvedev said, however, that Russia must remember its past and warned that "any stagnation is unacceptable." Russia needs to "gradually but steadfastly move forward," he said.
He promised a gathering of officials, businessmen, journalists and cultural figures that many of them could get government jobs if he and Putin swap places after the presidential vote as they have agreed.
Medvedev said he wants to form a Cabinet that would encourage stronger feedback from society and engage in broader dialogue with civil activists.
Putin's 2000-2008 presidency saw a rollback in post-Soviet freedoms and an increase of the state's influence on the economy. He has remained Russia's most powerful politician after moving into the nominally No. 2 job of premier due to term limits.
Medvedev's decision to step aside to let his mentor reclaim the presidency has disappointed many Russian liberals who had been heartened by his pledges to strengthen the rule of law, combat graft and make the political system more democratic. Wednesday's meeting, like a similar event over the weekend, was clearly aimed at assuaging the middle class's nervousness about Putin's comeback.
Medvedev admitted that Russia's democratic institutions still need strengthening, and said he would champion further reforms if he becomes prime minister. He also said Russia would keep friendly ties with other countries, adding that it would need their help to boost its economy.
"We won't be able to conduct modernization without help and support from other nations," Medvedev said. "The Iron Curtain never helped anyone, and concepts of autonomous development led into a deadlock."
Medvedev wrapped up the three-hour meeting by urging his supporters to keep up their efforts to change Russia.
"There is no one else who can do this," he said. "The number of political forces in our country is limited, and those who are really capable of governing can be counted."
Under Putin and Medvedev's leadership, political decision-making has been concentrated in their hands, and independent and opposition politicians have been sidelined.