President Dmitry Medvedev urged supporters to stick with him despite his decision not to seek re-election, and insisted Saturday that Russia would eventually develop its own brand of democracy.
Medvedev announced last month that he was moving aside to let Vladimir Putin return to the presidency and would take over Putin's post as prime minister. The decision raises the possibility of a Putin presidency that lasts through 2024, and adds to fears that Putin will expand his authoritarian hold on the state.
Although Putin has remained the more powerful leader in the nominally No. 2 post, Medvedev's stint as president had given hope to some who want to see Russia develop into a modern, democratic country governed by the rule of law.
To reach out to those who were disappointed, Medvedev held a televised meeting with bloggers, cultural figures and others, including a decorated tank commander and steel worker.
"If I understand well, everyone who is gathered here wants to see our country change, wants our society and our state to be modernized, so in other words you are my supporters," he said.
The meeting appeared aimed at nailing down votes for Putin and Medvedev's party in December's parliamentary election and for Putin in the presidential election in March.
Medvedev said a victory in both was needed for Russia to move forward. Although Putin's victory is all but certain, the United Russia party has seen its ratings plummet and fears dipping below the two-thirds majority in parliament that gives it the power to amend the constitution.
Medvedev stressed his 20-year friendship with Putin, to whom he acknowledged he owed his political career, and again defended the decision for them to swap jobs. Putin has a higher popularity rating and "we are pragmatic politicians, not dreamers," Medvedev said.
Some of Putin's opponents, however, have welcomed his decision to reclaim the presidency, saying it destroyed any remaining illusions that Medvedev could break free from his mentor and lead Russia down a different path.
Medvedev on Saturday addressed the criticism that his promises to open up the political system, fight corruption and attract investment had remained just words, saying those goals could not be accomplished quickly.
He insisted that Russia remained committed to building a democratic system, but that it would not be a copy of democracy as practiced in the United States or other countries.
Prompted by words of gratitude from the steel worker in the audience, Medvedev criticized Russia's centralized system of power in which actions are taken only following a decision from the top. Dmitry Chervyakov told him that following their meeting in April, the trams in his industrial town now ran late enough to allow those working the second shift to get home and the steel mill's cafeteria also was open into the evening.
"To resolve a basic problem, like with the tram or cafeteria, you had to visit the president," Medvedev said. "That's how it is here, and the name of the president makes no difference, by the way. You have to go to the top for something to budge. We must try to destroy this system of decision-making."
Putin demonstrated this top-down control earlier in the day when he ordered the head of Russia's railways, Vladimir Yakunin, to travel to Siberia and sort out a shortage of rail cars for shipping coal.
"I hope that next time you won't wait to be told but will stay on top of the situation yourself and make the necessary decisions," Putin said during a televised meeting.