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.

Mkhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
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.

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.

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.

"There is no doubt that Medvedev is sincere, but it seems like he is not free to act," says Andrei Kolesnikov, the paper's opinion editor, "Absolutely nothing changed for Novaya Gazeta after that interview. He showed good intentions, but that was all that happened."

Novaya Gazeta's chief owners are former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has been increasingly outspoken about Russia's authoritarian drift and liberal tycoon Alexander Lebedev, who also owns two British newspapers.

Mr. Lebedev this week complained in an open letter that businesses he owns have been raided by "corrupt law enforcement officers" who have made it impossible for him to leave the country for fear of being forced into permanent exile. He added that he has written to Medvedev asking the president to launch an investigation into his plight.

"Lebedev is a very active person, politically, and he now has very big problems," says Mr. Kolesnikov. "He is the main sponsor of Novaya Gazeta, and there is little doubt that this is the cause of his problems. We would like to see Medvedev do something, but so far we see nothing."

Medvedev has also suggested he would support an independent review of one of Russia's most controversial cases, the ongoing imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges that critics insist were politically motivated.

At a meeting of the Kremlin's human rights commission on Feb. 1, Medvedev appeared to accept a proposal to form a committee of independent legal experts to examine the two court verdicts that have sent Mr. Khodorkovsky to a Siberian penal colony for what will be a total of 14 years, says Alexei Simonov, a member of the Kremlin commission and head of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog.

"The proposal was made and Medvedev did not object to it," says Mr. Simonov, who attended the meeting. "It was subsequently supported by the head of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, so it's not an unrealistic idea at all. But without the active support of the president, it will have no official status in Russia and will go nowhere. We want to see real support."

This week a court assistant to the judge who convicted Khodorkovsky last December claimed that the trial was orchestrated from above and the judge did not prepare the verdict that he read out.

"There are major developments in the Khodorkovsky case, and it's important to have a president who will support a civil initiative to review it. Putin would never do that," says Simonov.

"But so far the support from Medvedev is mainly words. Practical support does not exist," he adds.

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