Russia's outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday proposed a law to restore the direct elections of governors, part of a raft of reforms promised after massive nationwide protests _ though the bill still preserves a strong Kremlin role in the vote.
Medvedev's powerful predecessor and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, oversaw a rollback in post-Soviet freedoms during his tenure as president, including scrapping gubernatorial elections in 2004. The Kremlin started appointing local governors directly and dissolving regional legislatures if they refused to confirm Kremlin nominees.
The opposition was immediately dismissive of the draft law, which comes after tens of thousands of Russians weary of one-party dominance took to the streets in the wake of fraud-tainted parliamentary election in early December.
The main Kremlin party United Russia lost a quarter of its seats in the vote, and opposition leaders and independent election monitors say United Russia only managed to retain its majority by fraud.
In an effort to stem the anger, Medvedev and Putin offered a set of reforms to allow more political competition in future elections.
The new legislation submitted to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, reinstates the direct vote allowing political parties or individuals to run for elections.
However, it mentions "presidential consultations" that allow the Kremlin to approve elected candidates and dismiss them for "losing trust" due to corruption or other violations. A lawmaker with United Russia defended the consultations.
"I understand the consultations as a necessary procedure," Vladimir Pligin told The Associated Press.
It is certain to be passed, because Kremlin-controlled parties still dominated the Duma.
The Communist party, which remains the largest opponent to the ruling United Russia party in the Duma, ridiculed the consultations. Spokesman Sergei Obukhov told the Kommersant daily newspaper that they signify the Kremlin's "legal cretinism."
Putin 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.
On Monday, Putin published a lengthy manifesto urging Russia's middle class to vote for him on the March 4 presidential election, while lambasting the opposition for a lack of vision for the country's future.
He said the consolidation of the middle class in post-Soviet Russia was an achievement of his two presidencies in 2000-2008 and four more years as prime minister.
"The middle class are the people that can choose" politicians, Putin wrote in a manifesto published in the Izvestia daily. "As a rule, their education level allows them to make conscious decisions about (presidential) candidates, not to 'vote with their hearts.'"
He said that in 1998, 5 to 10 per cent of Russians belonged to the middle class and said that the current figure has risen to up to 30 per cent.
" The middle class has to grow on, to become a social majority in our society," he wrote. "(It has) to include those who drive the country _ the doctors, teachers, engineers, qualified workers."
After the December protests, Putin has promised to allow more political competition and to take steps to ensure the transparency of the March 4 presidential election, but so far he has shown no willingness to consider the protesters' demands or to ease his centralized control over the political system.