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Medvedev's Unusual Gesture

Candles on the spot where lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova were killed
For more than a week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said nothing publicly about the killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and "Novaya gazeta" journalist Anastasiya Baburova on January 19 in Moscow.

He has now offered something of an explanation why.

Medvedev invited former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a part owner of "Novya gazeta," and the newspaper's editor in chief Dmitry Muratov, to a meeting in the Kremlin today to discuss the case.

After the meeting, Muratov spoke to Andrei Shary of RFE/RL's Russian Service about what the president had to say:

Mr. Medvedev said he absolutely did not want to make any statements [on the killings] because he knew very well how things work in the administration -- he worked as chief of the presidential administration for many years. And he said he understood perfectly well that investigators could interpret the words of the head of state as a directive to pursue a certain line of investigation. As a lawyer he felt strongly against that as a matter or principle. After allowing some time for investigators to work efficiently and independently, while understanding that what had happened was a tragedy, he decided to invite a shareholder of the newspaper, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the editor-in-chief to express his condolences, but also to get our perspective as people who don't represent the official... point of view.

I find Medvedev's reasoning here a little bit puzzling. Would a public statement of condolence for the victims' families, for example, have unduly biased the investigation? How about a statement calling on law-enforcement to bring the those behind the killings to justice, wherever the trail may lead?

A couple of other nuggets from the interview, which you can read in full in English here, jumped out at me. For one thing, Medvedev apparently told Muratov and Gorbachev that he is something an admirer of "Novaya gazeta," a newspaper that is a consistently harsh critic of the Kremlin:

As far as our newspaper is concerned, when I said that after the killing of Anna Politkovskaya I personally thought of closing it down because it was dangerous for the lives of our people, Medvedev said, 'Thank God the newspaper exists.' He said that it criticizes the authorities harshly, but that's what it's for, and 'Novaya gazeta' does not have to be liked, but it's necessary to accept its criticism.

And the president also hinted that he may favor leniency for jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other imprisoned Yukos executives. Here is how Muratov described Medvedev's thoughts on that:

We also spoke about [jailed former Yukos executives Svetlana] Bakhmina, [Platon] Lebedev, and [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. He said that the humanization of punishment should continue and that punishment for people who committed crimes not directed against individuals should be softened.

Muratov added that "Medvedev said firmly that I could talk about this meeting wherever I wanted and any way I wanted, and that is what I'm basically doing."

What to make of Medvedev's gesture?

Those looking for signs of conflict in Russia's ruling diarchy may try to fit it into a pattern in which Medvedev is looking increasingly at odds with his old mentor Putin on various issues -- including what to do about the economic crisis and legislation broadening the definition of treason and espionage.

Here is how Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center responded to the meeting, as reported by Bloomberg News:

This is very unusual. Medvedev probably did this without consulting Putin. Against the background of rumors of a split between them, this actually draws Putin and Medvedev apart.

Skeptics, on the other hand, will undoubtedly call it either a cheap PR stunt that is already getting play in the Western media, or part of a game where Medvedev plays "good cop" to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's "bad cop."

I'm reserving judgment for now.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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