Medvedev Grants Interview to Opposition Newspaper

By Sarah Schafer
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 16, 2009

MOSCOW, April 15 -- Stepping up efforts to portray himself as a liberal reformer, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev granted an interview to a newspaper that has been fiercely critical of the Kremlin and called Wednesday for changes to laws that have hindered the work of human rights groups and other activist organizations.

Speaking to a recently revived presidential council for promoting civil society and human rights, Medvedev chastised officials for seeing such groups as "a threat to their single-handed rule" and imposing restrictions on them "without any sufficient reason."

"It is not a secret that the idea of human rights activity is seriously distorted in our country," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "It stems from our history and certain ideological foundations."

The unusually blunt remarks came a day after Medvedev sat down with the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has seen two of its journalists shot dead in the past three years.

The Novaya Gazeta interview, published Wednesday, was the president's first with a Russian newspaper since taking office nearly a year ago. Though little of what Medvedev said was new, his decision to give the interview to a publication that has aggressively criticized the Kremlin for rolling back democratic reforms appeared intended to further set himself apart from his predecessor and patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev promised the interview in January when he met with the newspaper's editor and one of its owners, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to express condolences over the killings of reporter Anastasia Baburova and a human rights lawyer who had represented the paper, Stanislav Markelov.

The gesture stood in sharp contrast to Putin's response to the 2006 slaying of another Novaya Gazeta journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative reporter and critic of the Kremlin's conduct of the war in Chechnya. Putin condemned her killing but angered her supporters by adding that her impact on Russian politics had been minimal. He has never granted an interview to an opposition newspaper.

Asked if he intended to "rehabilitate democracy in Russia," Medvedev replied that "democracy as such does not need any kind of rehabilitation." But he added that many Russians associate democracy with the economic difficulties that the country endured in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

He rejected the idea that Russians have given up political freedoms in exchange for wealth, a popular view among Kremlin officials under Putin, some of whom have argued that Western notions of democracy must be adapted for Russian conditions.

"It seems to me that stability and a prosperous life should never be set off against a set of political rights and freedoms," Medvedev said. "Democracy cannot be set off against well-being."

Medvedev's call for changes in the way nongovernmental organizations are regulated was a departure from policy under Putin, who has warned that such groups may be doing the bidding of foreigners trying to undermine Russia. Putin toughened registration rules, which activists say now force them to spend more time submitting documents to state agencies than doing work.

Medvedev noted that the Kremlin "spent quite a lot of time to improve" the legislation but said it remained "far from ideal." He added, "Some changes are possible, and even essential."

In his interview with the paper, Medvedev also praised the Internet as "the best platform" for open debate and brushed off complaints that independent candidates were being harassed in a mayoral race in Sochi, the Black Sea resort scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Asked if he could call judges -- including those presiding over a trial underway against the jailed oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- to remind them they are independent, Medvedev declined, saying public officials should not interfere with the courts.

Analysts are divided about how much power Medvedev wields, whether he can back up his words with actions and whether a split is emerging between him and Putin. But Dmitry Babich, a political analyst at Russia Profile magazine, said Medvedev's decision to grant the interview to Novaya Gazeta was a good sign for those hoping for democratic reform.

"He chose a publication which was the most critical of the government and the closest to the liberal dissidents," he said. "The message was to a certain part of the Russian public and to the West that in the future, he wants more democracy for Russia."

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