Medvedev picks Politkovskaya's paper for first interview

Is the Russian president making a peace offering to liberals by choosing Novaya Gazeta, four of whose journalists have lost their lives after probing corruption and human rights abuses?

By , Correspondent

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    The editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Dmitry Muratov (r.), interviews Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in his Gorki residence outside Moscow on April 13.
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MOSCOW – For years, the Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta has been the bane of the Kremlin.

Its tough investigative journalism has been the most consistent and reliable source for those Russians who want to know about official corruption, political manipulations, and human rights abuses going on around them. And the price for publishing those stories has arguably been paid in blood: Four of the paper's reporters have been murdered or died in mysterious circumstances in recent years, including the indefatigable investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (read more about her work here).

But on Wednesday, Novaya Gazeta scored a very unexpected coup by landing an interview with President Dmitry Medvedev – his first with any Russian newspaper.

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The text of Mr. Medvedev's hour-long chat with editor Dmitri Muratov contains no bombshells or, indeed, anything that departs significantly from the standard Kremlin line. But many in Russia's beleaguered liberal community say they are trying to read the signal Medvedev may be sending through his choice to sit down with the country's leading opposition voice.

Complimenting democracy or praising Lenin?
Depending on whom you talk to, Medvedev was either trying to distance himself from his hard-line predecessor Vladimir Putin by reaching out to the liberal audience that Mr. Putin consistently scorned, or he is engaging in a cynical public relations ploy aimed at disarming his leading critics in the midst of a steadily-worsening economic crisis.

There are no clues to Mevedev's intent in the body of the interview itself. He rebuffs Mr. Muratov's suggestion that mayoral elections currently underway in Sochi – the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics – are an "imitation" of democracy, despite the fact that one leading opposition candidate, Alexander Lebedev, was inexplicably struck from the ballot by a local court and another, Boris Nemtsov, has been denied media access and saw his campaign literature seized last week in a police raid.

Medvedev also declines to discuss the controversial second trial of disgraced oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who faces another huge jail sentence on top of the nine years he is already serving, in what many consider a case of politically-motivated prosecution. And he angrily insisted that there is no need to "rehabilitate democracy" in Russia.

"Democracy existed, exists, and will exist," Medvedev said, a Soviet-style formulation that's recognizable to every Russian as a version of the old Communist Party slogan: Lenin lived, lives, and will live.

Medvedev's motives in doubt
"If he had said something that corresponds to the spirit of this newspaper, it might have been justified," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Movement for Human Rights, an independent grassroots group. Mr. Ponomaryov was recently beaten up by thugs on a Moscow street in one of many distressing attacks against civil society activists that remain unsolved by police.

"But to use the independent media just to repeat what he says to everyone else, it means a loss to all of us who have to read this, again, in a newspaper that we trust. If he'd said something new, then it would have been Novaya Gazeta's success; but this looks more like Medvedev's success."

During Putin's eight years in power, the main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, were driven out of the State Duma and liberal commentators were banished from most mainstream news outlets (read about media censorship here and stifling of dissent here).

When Ms. Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, Putin deplored the crime but added, in a scornful aside, that "her ability to influence political life in Russia was extremely insignificant."

Still in the shadow of Putin
Some Russian liberals suggest that Medvedev may be moving toward a break with Putin-era politics, and that his sit-down with Novaya Gazeta should be read as a very hopeful sign.

"I don't think Medvedev is play-acting, but showing genuine interest toward a leading opposition newspaper, which is impossible to ignore," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an independent journalist and biographer of Putin. "He is signaling that he wants a democratic dialog with civil society, and doing so by having tea and talking with the editor of the leading opposition newspaper. I'd say that's good for both the president and the paper."

So far, only a few small street protests by the anti-Kremlin Solidarnost coalition, led by liberal chess champion Garry Kasparov and leftist Eduard Limonov, have ruffled the outward calm of Russian society. But some experts warn that trouble could be on the horizon, particularly in hundreds of Soviet-era single-industry towns where mass unemployment looms amid the worsening economic news. (click here for more Monitor coverage of the issue).

Some critics say they want to see more than gestures from the Kremlin leader, and especially would like to see him do something about the huge backlog of unsolved murders and assaults on civil society activists.

"As I see it, the authorities just want to disarm critics and distract international public opinion," with steps like Medvedev's interview to Novaya Gazeta, says Irada Guseynova, an analyst with the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an independent monitoring group. "I'm sure there are people in the Kremlin who would advise the president that it's a good idea [to talk to Novaya Gazeta] because, after all, there's nothing to lose and the chance to gain a few points on the president's approval rating. But I wonder what's really going on here?"

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