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Russian President Reaches Out To Opposition Paper, Rights Activists

President Dmitry Medvedev told human rights activists that "There are many cases when the activities of nongovernmental organizations are restricted without sufficient reasons."
President Dmitry Medvedev told human rights activists that "There are many cases when the activities of nongovernmental organizations are restricted without sufficient reasons."
In an apparent effort to appeal to Russia's liberal intelligentsia amid rising economic and political uncertainty, President Dmitry Medvedev has granted an interview to a fiercely critical opposition newspaper and met with human rights activists in the Kremlin.

Medvedev's interview with "Novaya gazeta," which specializes in hard-hitting investigations and has seen four of its journalists killed in the past decade, appeared just hours before he hosted his first meeting of his new human rights council.

The moves come at a time when Russia's political elite is showing signs of fracturing with an increasing number of public figures calling for the authoritarian system established over the past decade to be opened up.

Medvedev did not break any new ground in terms of policy in the "Novaya gazeta" interview. But some analysts say the mere fact that it took place is more important than anything the president actually said.

"What is symbolic in this case is the choice of the publication and the apparent benevolent tone of the interview," Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Kynev tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I think the rest is absolutely secondary because, of course, there are no symbolic [significant] statements in the text of the interview itself."

'Democracy Exists, Will Exist'

In the interview, Medvedev dismissed the notion that there was an implicit trade-off under the leadership of his predecessor, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in which Russians gave up a measure of freedom in exchange for stability and higher living standards.

In February, Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development and an aide to Medvedev, said that "economic well-being is shrinking" in Russia and therefore "civil rights should expand." The remark drew fierce reactions from top Kremlin officials including Medvedev's powerful deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov.

Medvedev told "Novaya gazeta" in the interview that under no circumstances could you trade a "stable and successful life against an array of political rights and freedoms."

The president also rejected a suggestion that democracy needed to be revived in Russia. "Democracy existed, exists, and will exist," he said, echoing the Soviet-era slogan "Lenin lived, lives, and will live."

Asked to comment on new charges against jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and to predict how his ongoing trial would end, Medvedev was evasive, saying he had no right to opine on the case or predict its outcome.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov says Medvedev "avoided the questions and did not make any promises." Ryzhkov, a former deputy in the State Duma, says "Novaya gazeta" should have pushed the president harder.

"He needed to expand on the theme of democracy and show that there is a large gap between Medvedev's rhetoric and reality," Ryzhkov says. "How can you talk about democracy when across the country free elections, the multiparty system are under assault? There is no free speech on television. This is a person who is head of state who, with a wave of his hand, can facilitate free speech on state television."

End The 'Witch-Hunt'

Almost as if on cue, Russian television viewers did get a taste of free speech, in a report on Medvedev's meeting with the presidential Council for Promoting Civil Society and Human Rights.

Medvedev faced tough questioning about a controversial law enacted under Putin in 2006 requiring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the state and subject themselves to scrutiny of their finances. Kremlin officials have insisted that the law was necessary to prevent foreign intelligence services from financing political activity in Russia.

Ella Pamfilova, the council's chairwoman, appealed to Medvedev to stop the continuous vilification of NGOs and rights activists.

"I would like to ask our 'siloviki,' in particular our security services, to end the notorious, primitive witch-hunt against human rights defenders and our small, often marginal, opposition and instead focus their efforts on matters where human rights activists can be very good partners," Pamfilova said.

She added that the security services should instead be focusing on "sexual violence against children, child pornography, trafficking in humans, arms, and narcotics, and other crimes that really pose a threat to the national security of our country."

For his part, Medvedev praised rights activists and suggested that the 2006 law, which he described as "clearly not ideal," could be amended in the future.

"You are working in difficult conditions," the president said. "There are many cases when the activities of nongovernmental organizations are restricted without sufficient reasons. Of course, this happens also because many government bureaucrats see nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations as a threat to their own unlimited rule. Our country is probably not the only place where this happens, but we have our own, quite heavy, historical traditions in this sense."

In recent months, several public intellectuals have said that due to the economic crisis, the centralized and authoritarian system of "sovereign democracy" established under Putin and kept in place by Medvedev needed to be reformed and liberalized. Moreover, top officials like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov have called for Russia's energy-dependent economy to be decentralized and diversified.

Such proposals have been met with staunch resistance from the KGB veterans surrounding Putin, who is widely seen as Russia's de facto ruler.

Many seeking reform have placed their hopes in Medvedev. But prominent Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky says such hopes are misplaced and that Putin and Medvedev are simply playing a tried-and-true game of good cop-bad cop with the public.

"Medvedev's role in this game with Putin is to be a showpiece," Bukovsky tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Experts are already telling us that Medvedev is for liberal reform and Putin is the bad guy. This is how politics is played here. Now everybody is placing their hopes in Medvedev. If something bad happens they say it is Putin's fault. If something good happens, Medvedev gets credit. It is an old game that I have been watching for 40 years, and it is a game that I have grown tired of."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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