The new Russian Parliament chosen in a fraud-tainted election will go ahead with its first session, President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday, showing no inclination to bend to unprecedented nationwide protests that drew tens of thousands into the streets.
Medvedev acknowledged the vote-fraud complaints, but said lawmakers will meet on Dec. 21 anyway, ignoring demands that officials annul the election and start over.
"The State Duma must begin work," he said at a meeting with leaders of the four parties that won Parliament seats in the Dec. 4 vote. "We must continue working on our legislation because that is the whole reason behind having a parliament."
Leaders of two of the parties were openly critical of the elections after the meeting with the president. One maintained that the vote was "illegitimate."
The Saturday protests in some 60 Russian cities, including a throng of tens of thousands in Moscow, have left Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and members of United Russia searching for a strategy that would defuse the widespread anger without weakening their own position.
Even with the reported vote fraud, United Russia reached only a narrow majority, losing about 20 percent of its seats in the parliament and revealing voter frustration at ingrained corruption and the wide gap between everyday Russians and the country's plutocrats.
Medvedev told the leaders of the four parliamentary parties that "we must continue work not only on economic issues, but on reforming the political system. ... take more decisive steps to remove barriers on political activity."
Much of Russia's opposition political forces have been heavily marginalized by the authorities. Election law sets registration requirements so high that smaller parties cannot muster enough signatures to compete in elections. It requires at least 5 percent of the national vote even to get a token single seat in parliament.
The three other parties that won seats in the new parliament either do not offer significant opposition to United Russia or generally vote in step with it. But they were outspoken following the meeting with Medvedev.
"We consider these elections illegitimate from both the moral and the political point of view," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told reporters.
Sergei Mironov, head of the A Just Russia party, said the new Duma's first task should be to form a parliamentary investigation "to punish all those who muddled the real expression of the citizens' will and those who dared to break the law."
Medvedev said in the meeting that he believed election commissions and courts should take a look at violations complaints.
One of the most striking aspects of the weekend protests was that Russia's state-controlled national television channels, which generally have ignored the opposition or portrayed them in derogatory terms, gave substantial airtime to the demonstrations without apparent bias.
But on Tuesday, media critics claimed authorities were behind the firing of a top editor and senior manager and one of the country's leading media holding companies.
Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia's richest men and owner of the Kommersant-Holding company, said in a website statement that the two had been dismissed for an "ethical breach." But one of those fired, Kommersant Vlast editor Maxim Kovalsky, said he believed he was dismissed because a photograph his weekly news magazine published that contained vulgar words aimed at Putin.
Kommersant Vlast's scathing headlines and copy about the alleged vote fraud helped make its reports about the election particularly stinging. Kovalsky, who has edited the magazine since 1999, has turned it into the nation's most popular news weekly.
The magazine and the daily Kommersant newspaper, the nation's leading business daily, are a must-read for Russia's political class and its economic elite, and they have long been considered the nation's most stable and high-quality publications.
Usmanov, a metals tycoon, explained his decision by saying that some recent reports in Kommersant Vlast "bordered on petty hooliganism," but didn't elaborate.
Kovalsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio that he was told the reason for his ouster was a photograph of a ballot containing obscene words directed at Putin. Kovalsky said he published the photo, even though he knew it might anger the owner. "We are serving the readers and not the bosses," the editor said.
Demyan Kudryavtsev, the head of the Kommersant Publishing House, took the blame, saying on his blog that the issue of Kommersant Vlast had been published "in violation of internal procedures, professional journalistic standards and the Russian law." He apologized to the readers on his blog and said he had submitted his own resignation.
But Nadezhda Azhgihina, executive secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, described Usmanov's move as censorship. "We are shocked. It's a clear example of censorship from the owner, a Russian oligarch, who just threw away the general manager and the chief editor of Kommersant Vlast magazine," she told The Associated Press.
Vsevolod Bogdanov, the union's chairman, also described Usmanov's move as a "clear evidence of censorship," according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
During Putin's 12-year rule as president and later prime minister, the state took control of all nationwide television networks, which gave blanket positive coverage to him and other top officials.
Some of the print media have managed to retain their independence and have been critical of the government, but they also have faced pressure from owners fearing their business interests could suffer because of the criticism.
Tuesday's firings and resignations are not the first in recent weeks at Kommersant's media.
In late November, a deputy editor of its Gazeta.ru news site was pressured to resign over a map of pre-election violations compiled by Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring group.
Sofia Javed and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.