Vladimir Putin called on Russians to unite behind him yesterday as he prepares to return to the Kremlin next month, in a speech to parliament aimed at drawing a line under recent protests.
In a sign that politics have changed in Russia, however, a whole parliamentary faction previously loyal to the government walked out of the hall in anger.
Mr Putin, who will be inaugurated in May for a new six-year presidential term, addressed the Duma for several hours with his usual mix of statistics, earthy metaphors and patriotic rhetoric. "We have one Russia, and its modern, advanced development must be the goal that unites all the country's political forces," said Mr Putin.
He won the presidential elections in March with over 60 per cent of the vote, but his grip on power has been shaken by massive street demonstrations in Moscow and other cities.
Most of Russia's opposition is outside the Duma but, in a sign of the changing political climate, the Prime Minister faced tough questions from the normally docile parliament. At one point he angrily snapped at an interlocutor to sit down, while the Just Russia faction walked out when Mr Putin criticised one of their members who is currently on hunger strike in the southern city of Astrakhan.
Several radical opposition leaders, including the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, have flown to Astrakhan to show their support for Oleg Shein, a mayoral candidate who lost elections in March that he says were rigged. He and a group of supporters have been on hunger strike for nearly four weeks, but the case began to receive national attention only this week.
"As far as I know, your colleague Shein started the hunger strike but did not appeal to court. This is a bit strange. Why go on hunger strike?" asked Mr Putin. The leader of Just Russia said that the courts were biased, and led his group out. Local authorities have ruled out a re-run election, and Mr Shein has vowed to continue his hunger strike, even as doctors say that participants face serious health risks.
Mr Putin also suggested that the constitution could be altered to ensure future presidents serve only two terms in total. The current law has allowed Mr Putin to take four years away from the presidency, while still effectively running the country as prime minister, before returning for six years – or possibly 12, he made it clear any alterations would not apply to his tenure.
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