Obama Endorses Medvedev's Agenda but Pushes for More Democratic Reforms

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

MOSCOW, July 6 -- President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday that Russia needs more "consistent" protection of property rights to attract investment and a free press, independent courts and political opposition to fight corruption.

But he did so by endorsing Medvedev's public positions and without lecturing or raising the politically sensitive case of the jailed oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said Michael A. McFaul, the top Russia aide at the National Security Council.

Statements made by Obama during his closed-door session with Medvedev reflect the low-key, measured approach the new U.S. administration has adopted toward promoting democracy and human rights around the world.

"It was not him waving his finger, saying, 'You should do this and that,' " McFaul said. "It was affirming President Medvedev's agenda. . . . President Medvedev has been very clear about what he thinks about corruption."

Obama has also sought to distance himself from Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who is now the prime minister and who has rolled back democratic reforms in Russia while in power. Obama told the Associated Press last week that Putin still had "one foot" in the Cold War, and over the weekend, he granted a written interview to Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper known for its reports excoriating Putin's rule.

Asked by the paper whether resetting relations with Moscow meant less U.S. attention to Russia's human rights record, particularly the persecution and killing of journalists, Obama promised to continue pressing Russian leaders on such issues. He also questioned the government's treatment of Khodorkovsky, who after more than five years in prison is sitting trial a second time in Moscow along with business partner Platon Lebedev.

"Without knowing the details, it does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now, years after these two individuals have been in prison and as they become eligible for parole," Obama said.

"Nonetheless," he added, "I think it is improper for outsiders to interfere in the legal processes of Russia."

Part of Obama's strategy has been to focus on Medvedev, a Putin protege who presents himself as a more moderate leader interested in legal reforms and looser controls on civil society.

On Monday, Obama spent several hours in meetings with Medvedev, praised him on national television as a "straightforward, professional" leader and dined with him in the evening. The two presidents are also expected to attend events together Tuesday. By contrast, Obama is scheduled to share only a 90-minute Tuesday breakfast with Putin.

But Medvedev's commitment to liberalization is questionable, his influence on decision-making is uncertain, and he has thus far remained loyal to his predecessor. Some U.S. analysts have suggested that Obama should spend more time with Putin.

"The most important part about his trip to Moscow is going to be his discussions with Vladimir Putin, in my view, for the simple reason that Mr. Putin is by far and away the most important and powerful figure in Russia," said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But Mark Urnov, dean of political science at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said Obama's approach "makes sense." If Obama's effort to improve bilateral relations succeeds, Urnov added, it would do more than anything else to promote reform, because Putin would be less able to use anti-Americanism to bolster his rule.

Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Moscow, said it was important for Obama to speak publicly about the Russian political system's shortcomings, if only to establish a standard for the public to evaluate the Kremlin's rule.

"I'm not talking about pressuring Russia or promoting ideas. That wouldn't be productive, and it's not really possible," Gudkov said. "But to call a spade a spade, I think, would be useful, because the lack of standards has created this cynical atmosphere in Russia."

Obama is scheduled to meet Tuesday with opposition politicians, civil activists and business leaders, in a deliberate effort to reach out directly to the Russian people. He is also expected to deliver a commencement speech about his foreign policy priorities, including the promotion of democratic values.


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