(Updates with comments from Putin on opponents’ policies in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)
Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who pledged to develop democracy, won’t participate in Russia’s presidential election debates on television and will send representatives instead.
Putin is seeking to extend his 12-year-rule in March 4 presidential elections amid protests in major Russian cities. Tens of thousands of people braved temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) in Moscow two days ago in the third such demonstration since alleged fraud by the ruling party in December parliamentary polls. While Putin, 59, is forecast to win the presidency, his opponents have vowed to keep up their rallies to push for democratic elections.
The Russian leader will introduce initiatives to widen the public’s role in government, including requiring parliament to debate any initiative that wins the support of 100,000 people via the Internet, he wrote in an article published in Kommersant newspaper today.
Putin himself won’t debate against his four opponents in the presidential race on television before the election, said his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. “This won’t have any effect on the democratic process,” Peskov said by phone today.
The premier was due to face off on TV tomorrow against the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, followed by a Feb. 14 debate with billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and later with the two other contenders, according to a scheduled published today in the official Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
At a meeting with political analysts today, Putin dismissed as unrealistic Communist proposals to overhaul the judicial system and nationalize industry as well as plans by Prokhorov to accelerate state-asset sales.
“When a candidate proposes something unfeasible and then begins to implement it after becoming president, nothing but harm will come of it,” he said at his residence outside Moscow.
Putin, who has accused foreign powers of financing the protests, warned in his article that democracy can’t be imposed from outside or at a forced pace in Russia, recalling the “anarchy and oligarchy” of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the dominance of big business in politics.
As many as 138,000 Putin supporters gathered in Moscow for a rival rally on Feb. 4, according to police, with the opposition accusing the authorities of forcing government employees from Moscow and outside the capital to attend.
Putin denied in a meeting with journalists just before New Year that he had decided not to debate against other candidates because he was afraid of public sparring.
“It’s not about being afraid,” Putin said on Dec. 28. “The point is that the opposition doesn’t carry out practical work and it always demands the impossible, and then usually nothing is implemented.” Dialogue is required, “and I will decide what form it will take exactly.”
Putin will be represented in the debates by Stanislav Govorukhin, a film director who chairs his presidential campaign, and political analysts Sergei Markov and Dmitry Orlov, the Vedomosti newspaper reported last week.
The Russian head of government and President Dmitry Medvedev in September announced Putin’s return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister because of a constitutional limit on more than two consecutive presidential terms. Putin under the law can now win two more six-year mandates, which would make him the longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Medvedev announced changes to the political system after the December protests that make it easier to register new parties, run for president and restore more pluralism to parliament. The measures won’t have an impact until scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections in 2016 and 2018.
Putin has enough support to win the election in the first round with 52 percent of the vote, according to an opinion poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. He needs to win more than 50 percent to avoid a second-round runoff.
Backing for the premier rose from 49 percent in a poll published the week before, the state-run pollster known as VTsIOM, which interviewed 1,600 Russians from Jan. 28-29, said on Feb. 3. The margin of error was 3.4 percentage points. Putin’s support is as low as 37 percent, according to a Jan. 20- 23 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center.
“We face a long and tough battle with cynical and cruel swindlers and thieves,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is one of the opposition leaders said on his blog. “This is a marathon which we will definitely win.”
--Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Andrew Langley
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