Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual televised… (Alexey Nikolsky, RIA Novosti )
Reporting from Moscow — Rocked by mass opposition rallies, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged Thursday to slightly loosen the Kremlin's grip on power as he launches his campaign to return to the presidency in a March election.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Moscow to rail against Putin, who served as president for eight years beginning in 2000, and to protest alleged fraud in recent parliamentary elections that saw his United Russia party garner nearly 50% of the vote.
Putin, in a 4 1/2-hour live TV call-in show, refused to acknowledge election violations but said that to prevent fraud in March, he would install live Web cameras at every polling station in Russia "for the whole country to see."
The prime minister also promised to take a step toward satisfying demands for the return of direct popular election of regional governors and senators. Years ago, Putin personally presided over the dismantling of the system of direct popular election of such officials. But on Thursday, he suggested a compromise in which the president would pick candidates from lists presented by political factions in local parliaments to be then presented to the public for a direct popular vote.
Putin also promised to allow the registration of liberal opposition parties, including the Parnas party led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and onetime First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.
"We need to strengthen our political system first of all," said Putin. "We need to expand the base of democracy in the country."
"We can do anything here," Putin said, speaking about the chance of Parnas becoming an official political party. "We will be registering it, probably, [but] we need to somehow change the legislation. I repeat, we can liberalize."
But while answering dozens of questions on the live show, Putin also managed to sound tough at times. At one point, he noted that Kasyanov's government ministers would complain that their former boss was "a swindler" and that he was often called "Misha 2%," over alleged corruption.
Kasyanov, in a phone interview from Strasbourg, France, responded:
"Putin is nervous because mass protests in Russia, and the firm position of the European Parliament and the United States demanding a probe of the rigged vote results and the holding of a new election, have driven him into a corner.
"His promise to finally register us is an important step in the country's movement toward liberalization, but we know it is not based on his free will. Far from it, Putin hates what is going on in the country now, but he has to put up with this new reality."
The United Russia party was dealt another blow Wednesday when its second-in-command, two-term parliament speaker and longtime Putin ally Boris Gryzlov, resigned in an apparent damage-control effort to free Putin of any existing ties with the party.
"He is making concessions and distancing himself from the compromised United Russia and President [Dmitry] Medvedev, letting them both fall while he unabashedly continues his return journey to the Kremlin," Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, said in an interview.
But critics also questioned the sincerity and credibility of Putin's promises Thursday.
"The Web cameras installation is a trick to fool the naive as most of the falsifications happen after the votes are counted and the polling stations are closed for the day," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a senior political researcher with the Institute of Geography. "I am also skeptical of his promise to register Parnas and other opposition parties as it may be a tactical move, and after he is elected president again he may forget about it."
In his lengthy appearance Thursday, Putin also reproved famed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for having produced boring ballet music, suggested U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has mental problems, and said he thought the white ribbons worn by opposition protesters were symbols for AIDS prevention.
He also accused "some rascals from beyond the country" of inciting riots and discontent, and lashed out at the United States for treating its allies as "vassals" and dragging them against their will into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Putin also acknowledged being booed during a recent martial arts fight appearance, saying that people could probably get tired of his face.