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Dmitry Medvedev, Russia President, Offers Limited Reforms

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MEDVEDEV REFORMS
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MOSCOW -- President Dmitry Medvedev responded to protests over the fraud-tainted election by proposing some reforms Thursday to liberalize Russia's political system, but sternly warned that the government won't allow "provocateurs and extremists" to threaten stability.

The opposition said the proposed changes were welcome but insufficient, vowing to keep their push for the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote to be rerun and election officials accused of violations to be punished.

Medvedev, a lame-duck leader speaking in his last state-of-the nation address before Russia's March 4 presidential election, said Russia "needs democracy, not chaos" and that the government would strongly resist foreign pressure.

The statement follows massive rallies against fraud in the Dec. 4 vote, in which the main Kremlin party, United Russia, lost a quarter of its seats. Opposition leaders and independent election monitors say United Russia only managed to retain its majority by fraud.

A rally in Moscow demanding a repeat vote and punishment for the officials involved was the largest show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Another massive rally is set for this weekend.

The protests have dented the power of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and signaled that his bid to reclaim the presidency in next March's vote may not be as trouble-free as had been thought. He and Medvedev have said they planned to exchange places.

Both Putin and Medvedev, his loyal placeholder, have firmly rejected calls for a rerun, saying the vote reflected the people's will. Putin has accused the United States of fomenting the protests in order to weaken Russia and Medvedev has rejected U.S. criticism of the vote.

"We won't allow provocateurs and extremists to drag society into their adventures, and we won't allow any outside interference into our domestic affairs," Medvedev said Thursday.

While defending the vote results, Putin has suggested easing the tight controls on Russia's political life that he introduced while he was president from 2000 to 2008.

Putin said he would support relaxing the draconian rules of registration for political parties and restoring the direct elections of governors. Putin added, however, that the president would retain the power to approve gubernatorial candidates.

Medvedev repeated the pledge to return to direct elections of governors and spelled out Putin's promise to ease registration rules for political parties. He said a group of 500 people representing more than half of Russia's provinces would be allowed to register a party – a significant simplification of the current arcane procedure that requires a party to have at least 45,000 members.

Medvedev also proposed reducing the number of signatures a candidate must collect to get on the presidential ballot from 2 million to 300,000. He also promised to ease rigid state control over TV, saying one of the three nationwide TV stations should be allowed to shape its coverage without government interference.

The opposition, however, would only be able to take advantage of the new procedures in the next election cycle.

"Medvedev's address is like an injection in an artificial limb," tweeted Oleg Kashin, a columnist at the Kommersant daily.

Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, said Medvedev's proposals were welcome but not enough, adding that Saturday's rally will continue to push for the latest election to be voided and rerun.

"We wouldn't have heard any of these proposals if there hadn't been protests," Nemtsov said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose liberal Parnas party had been denied registration, said the changes proposed by Medvedev were long overdue, but added they would mean little if the authorities continued to reject demands for a vote rerun.

On the Internet, many argued for keeping pressure on the government to bring more democratic changes. Over 39,000 already have signed up on Facebook for Saturday's rally.

"Well, they threw some bones to us," Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International in Russia, said on Twitter. "Now we can either try to build something good out of them or demand the rest of the skeleton."

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Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.

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