By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev vowed Tuesday to keep combating corruption, pursing political reforms and modernizing the economy even as he shifts into the prime minister's job.
Medvedev had agreed to step down after one term to allow his longtime mentor Vladimir Putin to reclaim the presidency in March's election. The swap was widely seen as a show of contempt for democracy, fueling a wave of unprecedented protests before the vote.
Medvedev had raised hopes for liberal reforms after winning the presidency in 2008, but achieved little, largely staying in Putin's shadow, who continued calling the shots as prime minister.
In Tuesday's speech before the State Council, Medvedev repeated his mantra that "freedom is better than non-freedom" and promised to follow through on a political reform designed by the Kremlin in response to protests by tens of thousands demanding an end to Putin's rule.
The reform envisages restoring direct elections of provincial governors, easing registration requirements for political parties and liberalizing election rules.
Medvedev said the reforms reflects a "higher level of political culture" and demonstrates that "democratic prospects have been secured."
Parliament on Tuesday voted in favor of the gubernatorial elections bill. The final reading is Wednesday and no significant changes are expected.
In 2004, then-President Vladimir Putin scrapped such elections, saying it was necessary to keep criminals out of government.
Opposition members initially welcomed the reform, but lambasted the bill when Medvedev suggested it include a pre-vote selection process.
The bill allows the president to hold unspecified "consultations" with the parties nominating candidates for the vote or the candidates themselves. The gubernatorial hopefuls will also have to receive formal backing from 5 to 10 percent of local legislatures.
Opposition members say a selection process could let the Kremlin block any candidate it dislikes.
Medvedev said a fight against corruption would remain a top priority for his Cabinet, pledging to seek a greater public feedback.
He made similar calls throughout his presidency, but independent studies have indicated that corruption has continued to snowball in Russia and the size of the average bribe has doubled over the past five years. One study estimated that Russia's 143 million people paid about 164 billion rubles ($5.5 billion) in "everyday" bribes in 2010.
Medvedev also repeated his pledge to decrease the state role in the economy, improve Russia's business climate and ease punishments for economic crimes.
But despite long-held promises, the president did not pardon jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a probe into the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the same Interior Ministry officials he accused of corruption, has fizzled despite Medvedev's acknowledgment of official crimes in the case.
Putin announced Tuesday he would step down as the leader of the main Kremlin-controlled United Russia party after his inauguration on May 7. He suggested that Medvedev succeed him as the party's head.
The move would allow Putin to distance himself from United Russia, which has been dubbed by its critics as the "party of crooks and thieves."
Maria Rybakova contributed to this report.