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Medvedev's legacy in Russia: small victories in Putin's shadows

Despite making little headway on corruption or human rights, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev did change Russia. 'The ice began to melt and Putin won't be able to refreeze it,' said one expert.

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One of the signal corruption cases of the Medvedev era was that of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing lawyer who died in prison after testifying about a massive scam by top police and tax officials to steal $230 million from the state treasury.      

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Medvedev was presented with a full report by the Kremlin's in-house human rights commission in July 2011, which detailed the illegal arrest, prison abuse, and brutal death of Mr. Magnitsky in custody. At the time, Medvedev admitted that "crimes" had taken place, leading to Magnitsky's death.

Yet almost nothing was done, and last week charges were dropped for one of two prison doctors accused of neglecting Magnitsky's care, who had been the only people to be held accountable in any way for the death.

A 'new atmosphere' thanks to Medvedev

Liberals, democracy activists, and human rights monitors have complained repeatedly that Medvedev's promises of reform rarely seem to materialize. Particularly galling for many was his failure, despite strong pledges, to press investigators to move forward on the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya or to solve any of the almost 20 cases of journalists' murders and severe beatings that are still on the books.

But some experts say that Medvedev is being judged too harshly, and that the still-vague democratic reforms he initiated after massive public protests against electoral fraud exploded in December may yet salvage his reputation.

And at least one man, Sergei Mokhnatkin, is thanking him. "I can't believe I'm free," he told waiting friends outside the prison gate yesterday.

"Yes, it's very easy to blame Medvedev, because he looks so naive, so helpless, so dependent," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "Yes, he talked more than he acted, promised more than he ever delivered. But the climate of the country changed during Medvedev's presidency. My colleagues and I have felt a real breath of openness, more freedom of expression. Medvedev talked differently, he introduced a new atmosphere, and as a result the country changed.

"The ice began to melt, and Putin won't be able to refreeze it. Medvedev set some landmarks, and it's up to society to follow them."

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