Russian PM Medvedev says odds against Assad's political survival

In a CNN interview aired over the weekend, the former president and current prime minister commented on Syria, Sergei Magnitsky, and his office-swap with Vladimir Putin.

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    Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (r.) takes part in an interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN in Davos, Switzerland, recorded last week and aired Sunday. Mr. Medvedev said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chances of retaining power are getting 'smaller and smaller' every day, according to a transcript of the interview released by Medvedev's office on Sunday.
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Russia is gradually losing hope that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad can cling to power, and sees his chances fading with each passing day, former President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says.

In a wide-ranging weekend interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the West got its first good look at Mr. Medvedev – once regarded as the best hope for beleagued Russian liberals – since he vacated the presidency almost a year ago.

Most of his remarks stuck closely to Kremlin talking points. But his views on Syria are bound to be parsed by Russia-watchers for signs of change in Russia's longstanding pro-Assad stance.

Here, Medvedev offered just a glimpse of deepening pessimism in the Kremlin and a sense that opportunities to broker a peace in Syria's civil war – if there ever were any – lie broken in the past.

"President Assad made a mistake in carrying out political reforms," early in the now nearly 2-year-old uprising against him, which the UN estimates has killed more than 60,000 people, Medvedev said, according to a transcript released by Russian state media of portions of the interview not aired by CNN.

"He had to do everything much more quickly, attracting to his side part of the moderate opposition, which was ready to sit with him at the same table. This is a considerable mistake, maybe a fatal one.... I think that with every day, with every week, with every month, the chances of him surviving are becoming less and less.  But ... it should be decided by the Syrian people," he said.

He added that the only path to peace involves negotiations between all the warring parties. Russia's main difference with the West, even as it has sometimes hinted at mounting disappointment with Mr. Assad, has been its insistence that the Assad regime must be a party to any talks.

"If you exclude someone, then the civil war will continue, and the war is already under way.  And in it, in my view, both sides are responsible – the Syrian authorities and the opposition – which, by the way is largely represented by Islamic radicals," Medvedev said.

Many Russian experts argue that Medvedev was a failed president who rarely delivered on his promises and then stepped down in favor of Vladimir Putin without a fight. They argue that he is no longer relevant.

"Why would anyone listen to him, really?" says Andrei Piontkovsky, an analyst with the official Institute of Systems Analysis and a frequent Kremlin critic.

"For the rest of his life Medvedev will be doing his best to prove that he was not publicly humiliated when he gave up his post for Putin. He's just an unhappy person, who should be ignored," he says.

But others point out that Medvedev is still very important because he's Russia's only living ex-president, and as prime minister he is the constitutional next-in-line should anything happen to Putin.

The interview was conducted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Medvedev was leading a Russian delegation whose main task appeared to be stemming the damage done to Russia's international image by last year's perceived crackdown on anti-Kremlin protesters, and a series of anti-foreigner measures which include compelling NGOs with outside funding to self-declare as "foreign agents," and a new definition of "treason" that could hit almost any Russian who works with a foreign organization.

But Medvedev offered little insight into Moscow's official thinking as relations between Russia and the West plunge to their lowest temperature since the end of the cold war. He offered a tepid defense of the Kremlin's recent ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans, and insisted that he was just being a good team player when he agreed to vacate the presidency last September in favor of Vladimir Putin.

And he failed to offer any fresh thinking on the growing controversy over the fate of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who allegedly uncovered a vast scam to embezzle $230 million in taxes paid by his employer, Hermitage Capital, was arrested by the very officials he had accused, and subsequently died in prison, his body covered with signs of violence.

The implications of the Magnitsky case, exhaustively researched by investigators working for Hermitage Capital, have rocked the foundations of East-West trust with the clear suggestion that the Russian government harbors and abets organized criminals within its ranks.

Last month President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, a US law that names dozens of Russian officials allegedly involved in Mr. Magnitsky's fate, and mandates visa and economic sanctions against them.

Medvedev – following Putin's example – chose to treat the Magnitsky issue solely as a case of a poor fellow who died under unclear circumstances in a Russian jail. Yet when he was president, Medvedev was handed a report by his own Kremlin human rights commission that laid out the full story in stark detail.

"I'll tell you. I'm sincerely sorry for Sergei Magnitsky as I would be so for any person who passed away behind bars," he told Mr. Zakaria.

"And Russian law enforcement needs to investigate fully what happened in that prison, why he died and who is to be held responsible. [But] speaking of the activities of the late Mr. Magnitsky, my assessment is quite different.  It is not impossible that they came across corruption, because corruption is abundant. But he was never a corruption fighter," Medvedev said.

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