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At Russia meeting, Putin and Medvedev tangle over democracy

At a meeting, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to disagree over whether Russia is democratic enough, with an eye on the freewheeling politics of their neighbor, Ukraine.

By Correspondent / January 28, 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, left, speak during a meeting of the State Council on developing of political system issues in Moscow's Kremlin on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010.

Vladimir Rodionov, RIA Novosti, Presidential Press Service/AP



An open and unfettered presidential election is under way in Ukraine, to be settled in a final round between the two top contenders next week and no one can predict what the result will be.

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A healthy display of democracy in action? Not, it seems, if you're a Kremlin leader.

A "Ukrainian scenario" for Russia was one of the possibilities firmly ruled out in a meeting last week, widely covered in the Russian media, between President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Also in the room were selected political leaders at the Kremlin. The topic? The vexed issue of reforming the country's widely distrusted electoral system.

In the midst of an unprecedentedly sharp dialog, Mr. Medvedev appeared to agree with opposition parliamentarians that the growing dominance of a single political party, the pro-Kremlin United Russia, has brought unrepresentative and in some cases dysfunctional government to many Russian regions, and that may pose a serious impediment to future economic progress. But both Medvedev and Mr. Putin insisted nothing is basically wrong with the system and rejected claims that United Russia's supremacy is due to official sponsorship, blanket support from the state media, and outright electoral fraud, as many opposition leaders allege.

"It's important to point out that this was an amazing event, the first time we've ever seen top leaders confronted with this kind of criticism to their faces," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "That, in itself, is an optimistic thing and gives rise to hopes of real change."

Experts say the meeting is a sign that Russian leaders have realized that the era of massive oil-and-gas revenues is over and the waves of cash that smoothed over social problems and political disputes during Putin's two terms as president cannot be expected to return anytime soon. Medvedev has made "modernization," the goal of bringing Russia into the 21st century, the signature theme of his presidency.

Reform needed

"Everybody understands that political reform is needed" in order to build social stability and affirm trust in government, says Valeria Kasamara, a political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"People are losing faith in the possibility of honest elections, and turnout figures show they are ceasing to participate," she says. "The authorities fear a possible destabilization and they feel a need to show that something is being done."

But "what they are trying to do amount to half-measures," such as lowering the threshold for a party to enter parliament from 7 to 5 percent, or banning the practice of early voting, Ms. Kasamara argues. "Even if they only want to have a shop-window brand of democracy, they should at least put some democratic goods in the window."

Since Putin entered the Kremlin a decade ago, Russia's political system has narrowed, the number of eligible parties has been sharply proscribed, elections for regional governors canceled, the possibility for independent candidates to run eliminated, and major TV networks brought under state control. At the meeting Putin defended his legacy as "necessary for political stability," though he agreed that it was important to prevent any potential slide into Soviet-style authoritarianism.