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Why Russia's Medvedev can't seem to deliver

While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came into office advocating political and cultural reforms, so far he hasn't delivered significant change.

By Correspondent / February 18, 2011

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (l.) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shake hands before a Security Council meeting in Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, on Feb. 18.

Mkhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

Three-quarters of the way through Dmitry Medvedev's first term as president of Russia, civil society activists are increasingly venting their frustration about a youthful and Western-leaning Kremlin leader who frequently offers dramatic gestures of support for liberal reforms but appears unwilling – or unable – to follow through with practical actions.

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United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay, who held five days of meetings with Russian officials, NGO heads, and human rights workers this week, summarized their mood as one of thwarted hopes.

Mr. Medvedev's "efforts are appreciated but not advanced sufficiently to be described as a success," she told journalists Thursday. "There are still too many problems in the sphere of human rights ... [there are] also some serious setbacks and apparent serious miscarriages of justice."

Medvedev has projected a very different image than his KGB-educated predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who currently serves as prime minister and might harbor ambitions to return as president in polls slated for early next year. Unlike the dour and TV-oriented Mr. Putin, Medvedev came into office touting his geek credentials, started his own Videoblog to communicate with ordinary Russians, and frequently sends out emotional tweets via his official Twitter account to the world at large.

While no revolutionary, Medvedev early on rejected the Putin-era claim that the Russian definition of democracy is different from the Western version, and affirmed that human values are universal. As president he has strongly advocated a program of intensive "modernization" including political and cultural reforms that would draw Russia closer to Europe.

"Medvedev is trying to do something, but he faces a sea of problems that drowns his efforts," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization. "There is tough resistance from officialdom and the siloviki [security chiefs]. So, yes, we see small changes, but against this background of massive problems it would be presumptuous to say the situation is improving."

The legacy of Mr. Putin's eight years in the Kremlin includes a largely muzzled and state-guided mass media, tough legal restrictions, frequent official harassment of politically active nongovernmental organizations, and a string of unresolved murders of independent journalists and human rights workers.

Two years ago, Medvedev reached out to independent media by granting his first-ever print interview to the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that saw four of its reporters killed in the line of work during the Putin era.

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