Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, admitted that his government had lost of the trust of its people and pledged to introduce what he called “direct democracy” to refresh it, when he is returned for a third presidential term next March.
Challenged during a meeting with foreign academics and journalists to admit that power in Russia was too centralised, that 80% of President Dmitry Medvedev’s decrees were ignored or not fully implemented by the regions, and that no one trusted the power structure he had created, Putin astonished everyone by agreeing. He said: “I tell you, I agree. I don’t object to anything you have said.”
He said when he first became president 11 years ago the country was in so much chaos it was on the verge of civil war. He established a system of “manual control” over the regions, abolishing elections and appointing governors himself.
Speaking to a meeting of the Valdai Club, Putin said it was time to devolve certain powers and taxation back to the regions: “I have every intention to do that, but we have to act carefully. We have certain ideas about how to expand direct democracy, but it would be premature to announce them now. The British say it took 400 years for a lawn to be made, but we have not got that time.”
Putin was speaking after a survey conducted by the Kremlin about the unpopularity of regional governors was leaked to Gazeta.ru. It showed that a large number of governors, many of whom were heading Putin’s United Russia party’s regional lists – had poll ratings below 20%.
In Moscow, St Petersberg and Kaliningrad, voters were deserting the party that has nominated Mr Putin as their presidential candidate.
While this is not expected to change the fact that United Russia will get the majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in December – because United Russia is a party of bureaucrats and is infamous for strongarming teachers, students and millions of public sector workers to vote for them – it is a clear indication to Mr Putin that he has to act.
He is not expected to return to reintroduce elections for governors, but two commissions are currently looking at ideas on how to devolve more power and money to the governors, and devising measures to make them more accountable locally.
In a two-and-half-hour session with academics in the bizarre setting of the restaurant of Moscow’s richest equestrian club, New Century, Putin spoke as if his own election as president was a foregone conclusion.
He bemoaned the resignation of his “great friend” Silvio Berlusconi, who he called one of the “last of the Great Mohicans of European leaders”. Putin said: “[Berlusconi] is a very open person, which is rare in European politics. Gerhard Schröder [the former German chancellor] told me that Silvio was a very good person, but not much of a politician. But when Schröder himself resigned and Silvio went on and on, I remembered what he said, where he is and where you are.”
Putin criticised the US for its plans to place missile defence units on Russia’s borders and said no one was listening to Russia’s concerns that missile defence would make the balance of strategic nuclear forces unstable. He also repeated his criticisms of the intervention in Libya, and called on the Syrian opposition to meet President Bashar al-Assad. All three positions will complicate attempts by the US administration to keep their policy of resetting relations with Russia on track.
Putin scorned criticism that March’s presidential election would be a fix after his decision to swap places with Medvedev. He said Gordon Brown had taken over from Tony Blair without any election and no one had said that had deprived the British people of a vote.