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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Backs Ministers, Blames 'Glitches'

ReutersVladimir Putin, flanked by his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, meeting Tuesday with, from left, Dmitry Rogozin, Gennady Zyuganov, Boris Gryzlov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
President Vladimir Putin said at an annual meeting with State Duma faction leaders Tuesday that "glitches" had spoiled the Jan. 1 rollout of his social reforms to replace state benefits with cash payouts and said he has no intention of firing the government.

The resignation of Putin and the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov was a key demand of throngs of protesters who rallied in 70 cities across the country Saturday. The Kremlin-controlled United Russia faction fired back by organizing massive counter-rallies.

Police put the total number of demonstrators at some 250,000, but the Communist Party said Tuesday that it alone had gathered more than 800,000 people.

At the start of Tuesday's meeting, Putin praised the "logic" of the Duma deputies who had backed the Kremlin's social reforms, which he called "clear" and "well-grounded." But in an implicit criticism of the government, he noted that the changes could have been implemented more smoothly.

"It was possible to implement these decisions without the glitches that people have encountered and that had to be corrected later," Putin said in remarks carried by state television.

The meeting, which was closed to the press, was attended by United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov; Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party; Dmitry Rogozin, head of the nationalist Rodina bloc; and Putin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov.

The benefits law was easily approved last August by the Duma's United Russia majority, while the Communist Party and Rodina voted against it. The law replaces benefits such as free public transportation and free medicine with cash payments -- which many recipients say are far from enough to cover expenses.

Saturday's rallies came after the Duma on Thursday rejected a no-confidence motion put forward by Communist and independent deputies. Only 112 deputies in the 450-seat Duma backed the motion, which needed a simple majority of 226 votes to pass.

Putin defended the government Tuesday, telling the faction leaders that he will not fire the ministers, Interfax reported. "We spoke about this subject in detail," Gryzlov told Interfax. "The government is at work, and the more it works, the better it will get."

Speculation has been rife in recent weeks that Putin might dismiss Fradkov or other members of the Cabinet in the wake of the public protests. Fradkov on Monday criticized Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov for his role in the implementation of the reforms, causing some observers to wonder whether Zurabov would end up taking the fall.

Putin praised the Duma for adopting a series of key reforms such as the Housing Code, amendments to the Tax Code and controversial amendments to the laws on political parties and gubernatorial elections. "You have done a lot. You have approved very important laws for the country," he said.

Putin last met with the four Duma faction leaders in April, and he urged them at the time to put aside "political passions" and work together to approve "important laws."

Putin said Tuesday that he plans to hold these Duma meetings regularly.

Rogozin said the next meeting will be devoted to a discussion of the annual state of the nation address, which Putin usually delivers in late spring.

Zyuganov said he used Tuesday's meeting to let Putin know "firsthand about the mood in the parliament," Interfax reported. He said he also shared the public's concerns about the social reforms with Putin.

Zhirinovsky said he asked the president to fight "left extremism" -- in a clear reference to recent rallies organized by the Communist Party. He said there should not be any Ukrainian- or Georgian-style demonstrations in Russia and protesters should "leave the streets and go to conference halls and culture houses."

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Zhirinovsky pointing at Zyuganov while Gryzlov looks on, ahead of the party leaders' meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on Tuesday.

Zyuganov responded by saying there are no leftist extremists in Russia. "We have pitiful rightist politics, and people have no choice but to take to the streets to fight for their rights," he said. "If you call this extremism, then the government is a racketeer."

Zhirinovsky also said he told Putin that he wants "our relations with Iran to be built in such a way that our interests are observed no matter what turn events may take," Itar-Tass reported.

The Security Council said in a brief statement Tuesday that Iran's Security Council chief, Hasan Rowhani, will visit on Thursday and Friday for talks with Security Council chief Igor Ivanov on bilateral relations and international security issues.