By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will on Monday meet the organizers of opposition rallies for the first time since the start of protests that pose a growing challenge to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev will meet former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, left-wing leader Sergei Udaltsov, liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov and other Kremlin critics to discuss political reforms, the opposition leaders and Russian media said.
The meeting is the first known direct high-level contact between the opposition and the Kremlin since the protests began in December.
"Maybe this meeting will be another imitation (of dialogue) and, if so, it will be a big shame," Ryzhkov told Reuters. "But even if there is just a small chance of peaceful and well-conceived reforms being carried out in the country, we should use it."
Putin, who is expected to win a presidential election on March 4, has announced no plans to meet the protest leaders.
The protesters were outraged by alleged fraud in a parliamentary election won by Putin's party on December 4 and are concerned that Russia will be ruled by one man for 12 more years if the former KGB spy wins two more presidential terms.
Nemtsov planned to hand over a resolution drawn up by the protesters calling for political change, Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper reported.
Nemtsov told the daily Kommersant he hoped to discuss the release of people the protesters regard as political prisoners. The Kremlin, which did not comment on Monday's planned meeting, says there are no political prisoners in Russia.
Putin, who was president for eight years until 2008, has ignored most of the protesters' demands but he and Medvedev have announced plans to carry out electoral reforms.
Monday's meeting signals an awareness in the Kremlin of the challenge the opposition poses as Putin prepares to reclaim the presidency from Medvedev, the protege he ushered into the Kremlin in 2008 because the constitution barred him from seeking a third successive term as head of state.
Opposition figures seen as more radical by the Kremlin, such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, were not expected to attend Monday's meeting.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)