Medvedev meets the press

May 18, 2011

Dmitry Medvedev, the blogging, tweeting, iPad-carrying president, gave his first full-scale news conference Wednesday, bringing 800 journalists to his favored tech-savvy business school, where the eternal Russia of the almighty czars was as powerful a presence as the high-speed Internet access.

Though Medvedev talks frequently of his vision for a modern Russia, with strong democratic institutions and a high-tech economy, he was given question after question suggesting little happens in this country unless the ruler in the Kremlin decrees it, just as it has always been.

Yearly car inspections are a senseless formality — how will you change this? (He’s drawing up a new law.) Local officials show you perfect villages — do you understand how people really live? (Yes, from blogging and reading the Internet.) Our veterans are suffering — can’t you guarantee each of them an apartment? (He issued a decree on that in 2008.) And what are you going to do about the parking problem in Moscow? (He has talked to the mayor.)

Early on in the 2-hour-15-minute news conference, Medvedev cheerfully deflected the question that has had Moscow preoccupied for weeks. Will he run for a second term next year, or step aside in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?

“A press conference of this kind is not the right occasion for such an announcement,” he said. “I think decisions of this kind need to be taken and announced in a somewhat different format. . . . If I make such a decision, I will certainly announce it.”

His opaque answer led to lively speculation among analysts watching on television — the event was widely broadcast — that he would definitely run next year, while other camps took it to mean he certainly would not run.

Medvedev met with journalists at the Skolkovo School of Management, which he calls symbolic of his efforts to modernize the economy. He expects the school, which offers MBAs and teaches in English, to nurture development of a Russian version of California’s Silicon Valley — Arnold Schwarzenegger visited last year — in an effort to attract high-tech businesses and foreign investment that will help diversify the economy.

The location outside the city made the news conference an all-day logistical affair, with 500 Russian journalists (about 200 of them from the regions) and 300 from foreign publications driven by bus in shifts from the center of the city.

As they waited for Medvedev, who arrived promptly at 1 p.m., reporters were buzzing about a Putin interview published in the American hunting and fishing magazine Outdoor Life. Once again, Putin seemed to be upstaging his former chief of staff, who became president when Putin reached a two-term limit.

Reporters seemed to particularly enjoy the way the magazine interview dwelled on Putin often being photographed as a rough and tough action man, bare-chested and carrying a hunting rifle. They wondered if he was comparing himself to Theodore Roosevelt when Putin said he had seen the U.S. president pictured not only with a hunting rifle but also a lion he had killed.

Medvedev, widely considered to operate in Putin’s shadow even though he is president, at one point self-deprecatingly referred to himself as a city boy. He mentioned Putin numerous times, assuring his audience that he and his prime minister think very much alike after working together for more than 20 years. Of course they don’t agree on everything, he said.

“This would be boring and just not right,” he said. “Every person has a right to his or her own feelings and approaches, but we are close in strategy. If it was otherwise we could not work with each other.”

Relaxed and frequently smiling (in contrast to Putin’s acerbic, lecturing news conferences), Medvedev stood alone on the stage of the large auditorium, calling on journalists, then consulting his iPad to answer some questions that had been submitted on the Kremlin Web site.

When asked about relations with NATO, he grew serious, saying that the New START nuclear treaty with the United States could fall apart if Russia perceived that the proposed missile defense system in Europe is aimed at Moscow, despite American assurances to the contrary.

One reporter asked whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who crossed Putin and found himself serving a 14-year prison sentence, would threaten society if he were granted release.

“My answer will be as short as the question. No, it won’t pose any danger at all.”

That set off speculation Medvedev might pardon Khodorkovsky, though such talk has been heard before without result.

Medvedev also said Russia would cooperate with Swiss authorities investigating bank accounts allegedly connected to Russian officials involved with the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian police and tax officials of fraud. He was arrested, then died in jail.

And there was more. Thank you for supporting our President Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen journalist said, and will you designate our capital Grozny a city of Russian glory? We’re an oil-producing nation; can’t you lower gas prices, a Muscovite asked? We need you to give rural areas self-governance and protect agriculture, a man from the countryside said.

“I’ll issue a decree today,” Medvedev laughed, and soon was on his way back to the Kremlin.

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