By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev has called for an overhaul of Russia's "exhausted" political system in a sign that street protests and dissatisfaction with Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule are starting to have some impact.
The two men have dismissed the protesters' claims that a December 4 parliamentary election was marred by fraud and ignored calls for a rerun. They also sought to play down the significance of the demonstrations as Putin prepares to return to the presidency in an election next March.
But Putin hinted at some token political concessions in his annual question-and-answer phone-in on Thursday. He said he might change the law to let opposition parties be registered and allow regional governors to be elected, rather than chosen by the president, if their candidacy is approved in advance.
Medvedev, who is junior to Putin under their power-sharing arrangement, went further on Saturday by telling members of the United Russia movement that the political system and the ruling party needed reforms.
"We are facing a new stage in the development of the political system and we can't close our eyes to it. It has already begun," Medvedev said in a transcript released by the Kremlin and published on the presidency website.
"It didn't begin as a result of some rallies, these are just on the surface, foam if you like. It's a sign of human dissatisfaction," he said. "It started because the old model which has served our state faithfully, truly and well in the last few years, and we all defended it, has largely been exhausted."
Medvedev did not give any details of how United Russia and the political system, largely built around Putin, should change. But evoking the chaos that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution made clear the risks of ignoring the mood of the people could be far-reaching.
"The street, this is the mood of our people and the authorities must say responsibly and directly that this is their mood ... The mood of the people must be respected," he said.
"It's absolutely unacceptable for there to be any delegitimisation of the authorities ... because for our country this means the collapse of the state.
"What is Russia without government? Everyone remembers from the history books. It's 1917."
The hints by Medvedev and Putin that they are ready to tinker with the political system have made little impact on the protesters, who on December 10 staged the biggest opposition rallies since Putin rose to power in 1999.
The protesters remain angry the leaders have ignored their demands for a re-run of the December election, which the opposition says was rigged to help United Russia secure a slim majority in the lower house of parliament.
International monitors also said the vote was slanted to favor United Russia, and the protesters plan another day of rallies across the world's biggest country and energy producer on December 24.
"We want to get at least as many or more people out on the streets next Saturday to show they can't keep on cheating us," said Mila, a 26-year-old Muscovite at an opposition rally attended by about 1,500 people in the capital on Saturday.
Putin, a former KGB spy who won support during his 2000-08 presidency by restoring order after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, ushered Medvedev into power in 2008 because of a constitutional ban on three successive terms as president.
But an opinion poll last week showed Putin's approval ratings have fallen sharply. Many people feel alienated by a system dominated by the 59-year-old leader, who looks set to win the presidential election on March 4 and rule for at least six more years.
For some, the final straw was an announcement by Medvedev and Putin at a United Russia congress on September 24 that they planned to swap jobs after the March election, a decision widely seen as arrogant and undemocratic.
"We've had enough. Putin was president, then Medvedev, now it'll be Putin again. Who knows, maybe they're planning to bring back Medvedev again later," said Igor Belyakov, 35, during Saturday's protest organized by the liberal Yabloko party.
Putin sought to rebuild support in his long television question-and-answer session on Thursday, at which he discussed the protests and the allegations of electoral fraud.
But when he said he had mistaken the white ribbons worn by protesters for condoms, the comment went down badly. Many young people dismissed him as out of touch on the same social network sites that they have used to summon people to protests.