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Russian authorities enter into dialogue with radical opposition

February 21, 2012, 16:15 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s unprecedented meeting with representatives of the non-systemic opposition, including those who organized mass rallies of protest in the biggest cities of the country lately, has drawn a mixed response from society. The oppositional figures who were invited have been expressing reserved satisfaction, while those who remained on the sidelines are critical of it. Political scientists believe that Medvedev, who will quit his post in May, acted on instructions from presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, although the latter had made very harsh statements about street protests by the Opposition.

The meeting with the leaders of unregistered political parties on Monday evening was officially devoted to Medvedev’s political reform, which envisages, among other things, simpler rules of political parties’ registration and amendments to the system of State Duma and gubernatorial elections. However, non-system oppositional figures raised their own issues, mostly, the demands voiced during the protest demonstrations this winter, including the release of political prisoners.

The net effect is the leaders of unregistered parties were asked to join the working group for finalizing the political reform bills under the first deputy chief of the presidential staff, Vyacheslav Volodin.

Present at the meeting with the president were not only the leaders of minor parties, but some popular oppositional politicians, who regularly annoy the authorities with their demarches, such as the co-leaders of the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, and also coordinator of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov.

No sensations, but anyway that’s better than nothing, the Opposition’s representatives said about the meeting. Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov described the meeting in reserved but positive terms. “I believe it is good that the dialogue has begun. It is better than the total lack of contacts. There was no impression they were just trying to woo us, but on the other hand, there were no breakthroughs or sensations,” he said. “We discussed important questions. We walked about political prisoners. Medvedev promised to consider the case of each of them, but he refused to declare wholesale amnesty.”

Udaltsov said many critical remarks were voiced at the meeting over amendments to laws concerning political parties. On Wednesday there will be the first meeting of the working group under Volodin’s chairmanship. “The further work on the proposed bills will be discussed and we shall certainly take part in that discussion,” Udaltsov said.

Nemtsov, a fierce critic of the authorities, is satisfied with the meeting by and large, too. “I handed over to him a list of 37 political prisoners, and I mentioned some names, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. I suggested pardoning them.” He has the impression that the president wishes to pardon at least some of them, if not all.

Also, Nemtsov handed over to Medvedev a political reform program, drafted at several protest rallies in Moscow (on early parliamentary elections, on falsifications, etc).

Besides, Nemtsov proposed a constitutional ban on more than two presidencies. “Everybody was surprised, when the president said that he had long considered the same idea himself and that it looked right to him,” Nemtsov said.

“The president’s intention to reorganize the electoral system as a whole is very serious,” Yuri Moskalyov, the leader of the Truth and Unity Course party, told the RBC Daily. He said that to the proposals for cancelling the results of the parliamentary elections Medvedev replied that the elections had been completely legitimate and the most fair of all of the previous ones.

The meeting drew a mixed response from society. TV interviewer Vladimir Pozner is quoted by the daily Kommersant as saying that “this is a good sign, anyway.” After the meeting something must change. “Some positive changes will certainly take place, not cardinal, of course, but not formalistic ones, either.”

The co-leader of the movement solidarity, Garry Kasparov, who was not invited to the meeting, described it as “part of the authorities’ PR campaign.”

The leader of the unregistered party The Other Russia, Eduard Limonov, has emphatically condemned it. The meeting, he said, was “a terrible disgrace for all those guys.” “Those who went there are no longer the Opposition, they have defected to the other camp,” he said on the Russian News Service radio station.

Political scientist Vladimir Slatinov believes that either party pursued its own interests. “For Medvedev it was important to position himself once again as a liberal moderator, a figure the liberal opposition should rally around,” he said. “And the latter hopes that it will make some gains, for instance, future guarantees. The meeting was arranged in order to ease protests, to ensure there should be no rallies by hundreds of thousands after March 5.

Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin saw no signs of a compromise. “The sole result of the president’s meeting with the non-system Opposition was it has taken place at last. There has been no dialogue yet,” Kudrin writes in Twitter.

“From that meeting it is possible to derive the conclusion Medvedev now acts as a liaison officer between Putin and non-systemic opposition,” says political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, quoted by the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. Putin would probably tell them the same things himself, but now he just cannot afford to do that, because he is conducting his election campaign, addressed to the conservative electorate. If he starts flirting with the Opposition in public, he will run the risk of scaring his traditional voters away.

Political scientist Alexei Mukhin agrees. “By meeting with the Opposition President Medvedev assumes part of the pre-election functions of his friend Vladimir Putin, for whom it is not very convenient to condescend to debates with the leaders of small, unregistered parties. The president has issued a clear message to the effect the door to negotiations is open to all and literally everyone is free to contribute one’s own foundation stone to the groundwork the country’s future political system will be resting upon.

MOSCOW, February 21.