MOSCOW (AP) — A loyalist to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who served as the speaker of Russia's parliament resigned Wednesday in a move that appeared to be part of the government's effort to stem public anger over alleged fraud in this month's parliamentary election.
Boris Gryzlov had served as speaker of the State Duma for eight years and helped make it a reliable rubber stamper of Putin's decisions.
Putin has ruled Russia for nearly 12 years as president, then prime minister, and he is now campaigning to reclaim the presidency in March.
However, Putin's authority has been hurt by the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, which saw his United Russia party lose about 20 percent of its parliament seats and barely retain its majority. Reports of widespread fraud in the voting also led to widespread anti-government protests across Russia last weekend, the largest the nation had seen since its Communist days.
Activists have vowed to maintain the pressure on Russia's leadership, and on Wednesday the city of Moscow gave permission for three protests later this month — one for up to 10,000 people on Saturday, and two on Dec. 24 that can have up to 60,000 people total. All three will be held in downtown Moscow.
The U.S. government said Wednesday it hoped the tolerance of protests is a sign of progress in Russia. "We were greatly encouraged to see these rights and responsibilities carried out so well," said Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon.
Putin has promised a government reshuffle, and President Dmitry Medvedev said that their United Russia should share senior positions in parliament with other parties.
The dour Gryzlov, who served as chairman of United Russia and the speaker of the State Duma, announced Wednesday that he will not seek speaker's job but will keep his party post.
Putin is the leader of United Russia, but not a member of it, in a thinly veiled attempt to maintain his distance from the increasingly unpopular party, which has been dubbed the "party of crooks and thieves."
Gryzlov, who was evidently asked to step down, had become an emblematic figure in Putin's "managed democracy" system, which envisaged tight control over political life. Gryzlov's famous statement that "parliament isn't a place for discussion" reflected United Russia's domination of parliament and its marginalization of opposition forces.
The December election stripped Putin's party of the two-thirds majority it needed to modify the constitution, and it will now lose control of some parliamentary committees to other parties.
"Gryzlov was serving as the speaker in a predictable and comfortable situation, when United Russia had a constitutional majority," Alexei Makarkin, the deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies think-tank, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "The new speaker must be able to conduct a dialogue with the opposition."
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst who had close links to the Kremlin in the past, told Interfax that "Gryzlov has become a problem for United Russia."
Valery Khomyakov, the head of the Council for National Strategy think-tank, said Gryzlov's lack of charisma made him a liability for the party. "The speaker's job requires a more charismatic politician," he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.