Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday ordered a probe into reports of vote-fixing after the ruling party’s disputed victory sparked the largest protest rallies since the 1990s.
However, he flatly rejected the idea of staging fresh elections.
Medvedev said he had told election officials to take a closer look at reports of rampant ballot-stuffing and other allegations that officials had fixed the vote count in an election the previous weekend.
“I disagree with the slogans and declarations made at the meetings,” Medvedev wrote in his Facebook account, referring to the protests on Saturday across Russia that alleged widespread fraud and demanded fresh polls.
“Nevertheless, I have issued instructions to check all polling station reports about [a failure] to follow election laws,” Medvedev wrote.
The demonstrations near the Kremlin saw more than 50,000 people deride the outcome of Dec. 4 elections, which were widely seen as a litmus test for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s planned return to the presidency next year.
The protests were the largest to hit the Russian capital since the tumultuous 1990s and leveled some of the most intense political pressure at Putin since he first rose to the presidency in 2000.
Despite the change of post after having made Medvedev his hand-picked presidential successor in 2008, for many observers he has remained the country’s de facto leader.
Now Putin intends to return to the Kremlin for up to 12 more years in a March election that he has appeared destined to win.
However, scenes similar to those witnessed on Saturday in Moscow were replayed on a smaller scale across the industrial hubs of Siberia and the Urals — a sign that Putin’s path back may be more complicated than it first appeared.
Putin stayed out of the limelight on the weekend, while his spokesman issued a carefully worded statement that sounded a conciliatory note.
“We respect the point of view of the protesters,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in the overnight statement. “We are hearing what is being said and we will continue to listen to them.”
Former Cabinet minister turned Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov dismissed Medvedev’s Facebook message as “a mockery.”
“These are worthless instructions ... that are not going to calm anyone down,” Nemtsov told Moscow Echo radio.
Analysts point to a series of small, but significant changes in state policy in the past few days that hint at serious official concern about public discontent.
One of Saturday’s biggest surprises came in the evening when state TV took the unusual step of leading its news broadcasts on the rallies. Until now, the stations have been scorned by the Internet community for their ban on coverage of post-election unrest.
A Kremlin source told the popular gazeta.ru news site that it had been Medvedev’s decision to run the reports.
The Kremlin source added that Medvedev had also instructed Moscow police to handle the protesters “extremely gently” after seeing more than 1,000 activists bundled away by riot police the previous week.
However, dozens of people were still arrested in the regions as officials scrambled to respond to the re-emergence of political activity in cities that had stayed quiet since the early post-Soviet times.