Russia’s democracy does not need to be rehabilitated, President Dmitry Medvedev told Novaya Gazeta in an interview published today. “Democracy existed, exists and will be,” he said, in an unfortunate echo of the Soviet slogan “Lenin lived, lives and will live.”
He denied that Russians had embraced a self-denying social contract, ceding political liberties in exchange for security and economic growth. Under no circumstances, he said, would citizens trade a “stable and successful life against an array of political rights and freedoms.”
In a separate interview, Medvedev said today that he is prepared to amend legislation regulating non-profit and non-governmental organizations. He admitted there were “a mass of cases where activities of NGOs have been restricted without sufficient reason.”
He told Novaya Gazeta that ordinary Russians’ unease with democracy was due to the dislocations and losses of the Yeltsin era. “For many of our citizens, the difficult political – and most importantly economic – processes of the 1990s were linked with the advent of the main institutions of democracy in our country, and this was a very difficult period for them,” he said. “This affixed an impression on their understanding of [democracy].”
Observers appear struck less by the content of his remarks than by the symbolism of Medvedev giving his first newspaper interview since taking office to a publication described by official TV as the leading anti-Kremlin newspaper. “What is symbolic in this case is the choice of the publication and the apparent benevolent tone of the interview,” Russian political analyst Aleksandr Kynev told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
Several of the paper’s staff have been killed, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova and Igor Domnikov, while a fourth, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died from a mysterious illness. “Novaya Gazeta has suffered many losses,” said Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova. “(In giving the interview) the president wanted to express his moral support.”
Medvedev sent “a very significant message” by meeting with Novaya Gazeta, said Yevgenia Albats, editor of the Moscow newspaper New Times. “Now the question is whether there will be any follow-up,” she said. “We know he can speak nicely, but can he act?”
“In the activities of NGO and NPOs, officials see a threat to their undivided rule,” Medvedev said at the first meeting of a new human rights council, conceding that the legislation is “not ideal and many things can be changed in it.” The Russian Presidential Council for Assistance to the Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights includes members of human rights and civil society groups.
Democracy and human rights activists have been critical of NGO regulations, signed into law in 2006 by Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, which require NGOs to register with the state and subject them to overly intrusive financial scrutiny and reporting requirements.
Some will find Medvedev’s confidence in the robustness of Russia’s democracy to be misplaced in a week when prospective candidate Alexander Lebedev, an associate of former premier Mikhail Gorbachev, was disqualified him from standing in the forthcoming Sochi election. The Sochi contest has been hailed by some observers as a sign that “public politics are returning to Russia.”