Holding Medvedev to His Words

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 25, 2008

Dmitry Medvedev, the man Vladimir Putin has appointed to be elected as Russia's president next Sunday, is so slavishly devoted to his patron that he has begun imitating his physical quirks. That includes "how he lays his hands on the table or how he stresses key words in speeches," not to mention walking with "fast and abrupt steps," according to the Reuters journalist Oleg Shchedrov.

Medvedev presumably won't be exercising his power as president to dismiss the prime minister -- the position Putin is about to assume -- anytime soon. Yet the diminutive 42-year-old former law professor has been making some interesting statements the past couple of weeks. For example: "Russia is a country of legal nihilism. No European country can boast such a universal disregard for the rule of law."

Or: "Freedom is inseparable from the actual recognition by the people of the power of law. The supremacy of the law should become one of our basic values." Or: "One of the key elements of our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of our legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power."

It's hard to believe that Medvedev could mean this. After all, the man he is to succeed has, according to estimates by Russian and Western analysts, accumulated a $40 billion fortune while in office, ranging from shares in Russian energy companies to an apartment in Paris. On his watch, 14 journalists -- almost all of them Kremlin critics -- have been murdered, but none of the killers has been brought to justice. Relations with Britain are icy, thanks to Putin's refusal to act on Scotland Yard's case against the former KGB agent it says poisoned a Putin critic in London.

But criminality isn't limited to the Kremlin; it may be Russia's single greatest problem. Average citizens are frustrated by everything from the bribes necessary to obtain simple services to the extortion practiced by police and the susceptibility of judges to payoffs, as well as political orders. Promising the rule of law -- even if he doesn't apply it to Putin and his circle -- may be the juiciest pre-election promise Medvedev can make.

In any case, his pledge was seized upon by Lev Ponomarev, the courageous and pragmatic leader of the Russian movement For Human Rights, which is fighting an uphill battle to retard the country's return to Soviet-style lawlessness. Ponomarev was in Washington this month to lobby the Bush administration and the presidential campaigns; as he explained it, Russia's presidential transition offers a rare opportunity for outsiders to press Moscow to adhere to basic international standards.

"I don't have any big illusions," Ponomarev told me. "I think Mr. Medvedev is just another face of Mr. Putin. On the other hand it provides an opportunity to follow up on the rhetoric about the rule of law. If Mr. Medvedev says A, maybe it is possible to pressure him to say B. What can B be? It can be specific steps for restoring and enforcing legal norms."

Ponomarev said that President Bush and his successor can start by pushing Medvedev to stop using the law as an instrument of political repression. That would mean ending such practices as the prosecution of liberal academics on bogus espionage charges; the involuntary commitment of opposition activists to psychiatric wards, or their draft into the military; and the campaigns against human rights and other civil society groups based on supposed tax violations or breaches of local ordinances.

Next comes what Ponomarev called "the torture camps": a re-emerging gulag of some 50 prison colonies, closed to the outside world, where prisoners are subjected to systematic violence and abuse. Ponomarev's group has documented these practices in photographs and videos smuggled out of the camps, many of which are controlled by the same officials or clans that managed them in the Soviet era.

Finally, there is the legal persecution of those who report such truths. On Friday, state prosecutors brought criminal charges against Ponomarev himself, claiming that he had slandered Gen. Yuri Kalinin, the head of the prison camp system. Ponomarev's travel documents were also revoked; his lawyers believe he is being punished for speaking out in the United States.

"It seems to me that a country that is a member of the G-8," the group of rich democracies that Russia was allowed into a decade ago, "cannot afford to have political prisoners and to have torture in its prison camps," Ponomarev said to me. It also shouldn't be allowed to prosecute human rights activists who try to promote the rule of law. Medvedev ought to be asked by President Bush and other Western leaders to explain how his talk of ending "legal nihilism" squares with the charges against Ponomarev -- before the new president gets his first invitation to a G-8 summit.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company