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Financial Times: Lawyer with a new brief

By Lionel Barber, Catherine Belton and Neil Buckley
Published: March 25 2008 02:00 | Last updated: March 25 2008 02:00

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev says he is a lawyer “to my bones”. Throughout a two-hour interview deep in the Kremlin, the 42-year-old successor to Vladimir Putin weighs every question, answering with precision and at length. But asked if Mr Putin was correct to say this month that the west will find it no easier to deal with Russia’s next president, his response is terse.

“Of course he is right,” he says with a slightly forced smile, sitting in a deep-green anteroom to a Kremlin hall hung with prints depicting the French retreat from Moscow in 1812.

This could be read as slavish loyalty to the mentor who hand-picked Mr Medvedev to take over as only Russia’s third president since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it could also signal that a man who has worked with Mr Putin for 17 years wants to step out of his master’s shadow. And, while regarded as a relative liberal among senior Russian officials, he does not want to be seen as a soft touch.

Mr Medvedev’s inauguration on May 7 will mark a unique moment in Russian history. For the first time a Russian leader – whether tsar, Communist general secretary or post-communist president – will voluntarily leave office on time and at the height of his popularity. Yet it also heralds the start of a risky experiment. Mr Putin will leave the presidency but stay on as prime minister, in what some see as merely a ruse to remain in power. Others warn it could create a dual-headed power structure, which has spelt instability in Russia’s troubled past.

The president-elect insists the arrangement can work. He describes it as a “tandem”, in which both men understand the division of labour spelt out in the constitution. Mr Medvedev, as president, will set the priorities in domestic and foreign policy. He is commander-in-chief, makes the key decisions on forming the executive, and is guarantor of Russians’ rights and freedoms. The government, headed by Mr Putin, implements policy, especially in the economic arena.

It sounds cut and dried. But Mr Medvedev does not share Mr Putin’s KGB background, has no political base of his own and owes everything to Mr Putin – including, arguably, his 70 per cent share of the vote in this month’s presidential election. Moreover, a powerful group of Kremlin hardliners would have preferred Mr Putin to stay on for a third term.

He has much to prove, therefore, not just to the former military and security men nicknamed the siloviki or “men of power”, but to the outside world, where he remains an unknown quantity. Until two years ago, Mr Medvedev was largely a backroom operator, as Kremlin chief of staff. Two stints as chairman of Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant – a position he still holds – will have provided only a hint of the pressures he faces running a country where the political environment is as unforgiving as a Siberian winter.

So how does Mr Medvedev intend to assert his authority? In his first interview since the March 2 election, Russia’s next president outlined his priorities and offered an insight into his political philosophy. Speaking through an interpreter whose English he frequently corrected, he spelt out how he planned to continue Mr Putin’s course while putting his own stamp on how the country is governed. He was clinical and dispassionate in his answers, without the folksy wit or earthy language of his mentor, scribbling occasional words and doodles on a Kremlin notepad.

His starting point is his legal background – he is, he says, “perhaps too much of a lawyer”. Meticulous and precise, he sees almost every issue through the prism of legal thinking. But behind the occasionally laboured language lies a deeper goal. Mr Medvedev says he wants to do what no Russian leader has done before: embed the rule of law in Russian society.

“It is a monumental task,” he agrees, switching momentarily to English. “Russia is a country where people don’t like to observe the law. It is, as they say, a country of legal nihilism.”

The pledge to overcome “legal nihilism” became a central part of Mr Medvedev’s low-key election campaign. It seems a restatement of Mr Putin’s own promise eight years ago to establish a “dictatorship of laws”, although critics say Mr Putin delivered too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Even today, Russians quote the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s aphorism that “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfil them”. The result is a society plagued by endemic corruption, arbitrary use of the law by the state against individuals or companies – and by companies against each other – and a judiciary that has never known genuine independence.

Mr Medvedev insists Russia can build the rule of law, outlining a three-point plan. The first step is to assert the law’s supremacy over executive power and individual actions. The second is to “create a new attitude to the law”.

“We need to make sure that every citizen understands not only the necessity and desirability of observing the law, but also understands that without [this] there cannot be normal development of our state or society,” he says.

Third is to create an effective courts system, above all by assuring independence of the judiciary. Judges must be paid more and their prestige enhanced so Russian law graduates, as elsewhere, see becoming a judge as the “summit of a legal career”.

Proper law enforcement is also fundamental to tackling another age-old problem that Mr Medvedev has made a priority – bribery. The president-elect is equally severe on the motorist paying off a policeman to avoid speeding fines as on the bureaucrat taking a cut on a business deal.

“When a citizen gives a bribe to the traffic police, it probably does not enter his head that he is committing a crime . . . People should think about this,” he says. He also pays lip-service at least to the idea that those at the top of the “vertical of power” Mr Putin has created must set an example themselves. “The only way that Russia can count on having the supremacy of the law is in a situation where the powers-that-be respect the independence of courts and judges,” says Mr Medvedev.

When pressed, moreover, the president-elect signals a break with recent years by saying he will rein in any security and law enforcement services found to be engaged in illegal business. It seems a hint that he may be prepared to confront the siloviki clan – those most unhappy with his elevation to president. Viktor Cherkesov, head of Russia’s anti-narcotics service and a former KGB general, complained late last year that rival security services were fighting between themselves for wealth and influence.

“If I get information that representatives of any law enforcement structures are involved in competing or fighting for material wealth, then such people will be immediately fired and charged with crimes,” says Mr Medvedev.

But Mr Medvedev uses the same assertion of judicial independence to sidestep a question on rumours that he might pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s one-time richest man, now languishing in a Siberian prison on fraud charges. The case is widely seen as the most high-profile example of arbitrary use of the law under Mr Putin, after Mr Khodorkovsky funded opposition parties and voiced political ambitions. What happens next to the former chief of the Yukos oil company, insists Mr Medvedev, is up to the courts: “No one should interfere, neither a village elder nor the president of the country.”

While Mr Medvedev is clear that he is a proponent of the rule of law, however, he is wary, when invited to do so, of describing himself as a “democrat”. The most likely reason is that the term became a dirty word in Russia during the chaos of the 1990s, when communism collapsed and the Yeltsin regime led a dash to the market economy.

“I am a supporter of the values of democracy in the form that humanity has developed them over the last few centuries,” he says instead. “My definition of democracy as the power of the people is in no way different from classical definitions that exist in all countries.”

In what appears a veiled sideswipe at the US “freedom agenda”, he calls it a “dangerous extreme” to attempt to develop democracy in a country “outside its historic or territorial context”.

“Our democracy is very young,” he says. “It’s less than two decades old. Before this, there was no democracy, not in Tsarist times and not in Soviet times.”

But in words that may be welcomed in western capitals, Mr Medvedev makes clear he gives short shrift to those who say Russia is barren ground for democracy. “Russia is a European country and Russia is absolutely capable of developing together with other states that have chosen this democratic path of development,” he says.

While repeating a mantra he has used in speeches that “freedom is better than non-freedom”, he is far less clear, however, on questions of media freedom. Russia’s future president declines to admit what many citizens readily do: that Russia’s television news – even if some alternative sources exist – has reverted to a quasi-Soviet propaganda tool. His answer to a question on whether his presidency will ease media restrictions is rambling and defensive.

He suggests the huge increase in the market value of the media sector during the Putin years signals its health. He starts his own day by reviewing websites both respectful and harshly critical of the authorities. Forty million Russians, he adds, have the same choice – without mentioning that the vast majority still say their main news source is state -television.

Mr Medvedev’s overall thrust is that if Russia’s economy continues to expand, and it can build the rule of law so corruption can be overcome, its democracy will mature into something more closely resembling international models. His biggest priority, he says, is to translate Russia’s oil-fuelled economic recovery into social programmes that transform the lives of citizens.

But obstacles loom on the road to fulfilling that vision. The global credit squeeze is slowing growth, which could yet reduce the $100-plus oil prices that have underpinned Russia’s economic renaissance. After steadily falling through the Putin years, inflation last year spiked upwards to 12 per cent – the number one complaint among Russians – driven by a pre-election budgetary splurge and spiralling global food prices. That presents a tricky balancing act for a central bank seeking to restrain rouble appreciation that could damage competitiveness, while ensuring sufficient liquidity flows to the banking system.

In short, the extraordinary economic luck Mr Putin enjoyed during his presidency may be about to run out – presenting his youthful protégé with a crisis that the master himself never had to face. Mr Medvedev concedes the need for careful marshalling of the economy, but trumpets its strength. Russia’s financial and stock markets, he contends, are “islands of stability in the ocean of financial turmoil”.

“What makes us confident is that over the last eight years we have managed to create a stable macroeconomic system,” he says. “Our financial reserves . . . are higher than ever before, reflecting the overall state [of] the Russian economy.”

The president-elect does not say specifically he will reduce the state companies that have proliferated under Mr Putin, which rivals and many economists charge with inefficiency and stifling competition. But he does say they should operate only in certain, limited sectors, for example where essential to the state’s economic security.

“The number of state companies . . . should be exactly the number required to ensure the interests of all the country, but no more,” he says. Mr Medvedev also repeats campaign pledges to reduce the number of state representatives – often ministers or senior Kremlin officials – on state company boards and bring in more independent directors.

For a man with no foreign policy experience, however, negotiating a path through the many disagreements between Russia and its western partners could be his biggest trial. After confirming the outgoing president’s assertion that the west will find him no pushover, he circumvents a question on Mr Putin’s related remark that Mr Medvedev is “no less a nationalist, in the good sense of the word” than himself. Just as when asked whether he is a democrat, Mr Medvedev eschews labels.

“Any effective leader . . . has to take care of defending the interests of his country. In foreign relations, you can’t be a liberal, a conservative or a democrat.”

On Russia’s most strained foreign relationship – with the UK – he says it is in Russia’s interests to see an improvement. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate him on his election victory, he adds. Economic relations remain “magnificent”, with British investment in Russia totalling $26bn. Bilateral relations, such as co-operation between intelligence services, have been largely “rolled up”, though this is “not a tragedy”. But Mr Medvedev does not shrink from repeating recent accusations that the British Council, the UK cultural body whose offices outside Moscow were forced to close, has been involved in spying.

“The reports I get as one of the leaders of the country show that there is a problem with this,” he says. He deflects suggestions that last week’s detention of an employee of TNK-BP, the Anglo-Russian oil joint venture, might be a bid by security services to sabotage any improvement in UK-Russian relations. In this case, too, he says, his information suggests there is a case of industrial espionage to investigate.

Russia’s next president gives little sign he will adopt a more conciliatory approach to the US, with whom relations have deteriorated sharply. But he says he told George W. Bush, during a call to congratulate Mr Medvedev on his election, that relations might have been even worse were it not for the personal chemistry between the US president and Mr Putin. He holds out some hope of a “legacy” deal with the US before Mr Putin steps down to resolve disputes over US plans to site elements of a missile defence shield in eastern Europe, and over how to replace the Start treaty limiting strategic nuclear missiles, which expires next year. But Mr Medvedev warns that offering Ukraine and Georgia the prospect of Nato membership at a summit next week could undermine attempts to mend transatlantic ties.

“We are not happy about the situation around Georgia and Ukraine,” he says. “We consider it extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security. No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its -borders.”

Though he insists he will personally oversee foreign affairs, Mr Medvedev seems set to rely heavily on his relationship with the outgoing president. He talks of Mr Putin almost as a revered elder brother.

“When we first met, I really was a young person. I was 24, and he was younger than I am now,” he recalls. “But he was already much more experienced, having gone through service in Russia and abroad.”

“It’s also very important that we are tied by friendship and trust,” he adds, saying the most important thing he has learnt from Mr Putin is his painstakingly analytical approach to decision-making.

Asked if his team will be any less dominated than Mr Putin’s by fellow natives of St Petersburg, Russia’s second city – a question eliciting laughter from Mr Medvedev and his aides – the president-elect says relying on trusted friends and colleagues is natural. But, he adds, he does “not intend to use preferences based on territorial principles”.

He has no illusions about the enormity of the job ahead. “I had many different feelings, I won’t hide this,” he says of the moment he realised he would be president. “The president carries the greatest responsibility for the state of affairs in the country. It’s the kind of function . . that you can’t just turn off with a light switch. You can’t go to sleep and stop being president.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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