Medvedev to meet Russia's protest leaders

AFP , Monday 20 Feb 2012

Russian president meets with opposition movement leaders to end two-month-long protests over fraudulent polls in which ruling party held onto majority

President Dmitry Medvedev was set Monday to meet heads of Russia's opposition movement in a bid to calm protests that have greeted strongman Vladimir Putin's likely return as president in March polls.

The talks at the president's suburban Moscow residence are tipped to include such ardent members of anti-Putin protests  as the leftist radical Sergei Udaltsov and veteran liberal Boris Nemtsov.

"We will discuss political reforms and the [opposition] rally demands," Udaltsov wrote on his Twitter page.

Nemtsov for his part said he intended to press Medvedev for the release of 37 Russian "political prisoners" and demand constitutional changes barring presidents from serving three terms.

Udaltsov told AFP the first such meeting since protests broke out in response to contested December parliamentary elections would begin at 4:00 pm (1200 GMT).

The Kremlin disclosed no details of what might be discussed.

Medvedev announced plans to personally talk to the opposition leaders last week after introducing a new bill to parliament aimed at softening some of Russia's strict election laws.

His measures have been widely criticised as too limited and too late to make a difference in the 4 March election.

Protesters initially took to the streets to condemn a 5 December ballot in which the ruling party managed to keep its majority in parliament, despite signs of widespread fraud in Moscow and other key regions.

The government's strong denial of the allegations fed the rallies in subsequent weeks. Much of the anger is now directed at Putin's decision to run again for office after serving as president between 2000 and 2008.

Putin's victory in that ballot seems beyond doubt, with opinion polls showing he may win in the first round against four nominally opposition candidates, gaining as much as 60 per cent of the vote.

But some protest leaders said it was time to move beyond the March election and think of ways the opposition could unite behind a single new leader who could win in future polls.

"What concerns me most is whether our movement has matured enough to be able to understand that if it wants to succeed, it must act as one," the detective novelist and protest leader Boris Akunin told The New Times weekly.

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