President Medvedev Says Many Russians Are Uneasy With Democracy
Although the interview published Wednesday did not break ground in policy matters, Medvedev's giving it to Novaya Gazeta had symbolic resonance. The newspaper consistently challenges the Kremlin on matters including human rights, freedom of speech and Russia's alleged backsliding on democracy.
Medvedev, who took office in May, has not diverged significantly from the policies of his predecessor Vladimir Putin, who oversaw the consolidation of political power under the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, the growing state control of major industries and the state takeover of formerly independent television networks.
But he appears to be positioning himself as a more conciliatory leader and has emphasized the importance of the rule of law and improvements in social services.
Asked by the newspaper whether he was aiming to "rehabilitate democracy," Medvedev said that wasn't needed.
"Democracy existed, exists and will be," he said. The phrase bore an echo of the Soviet slogan "Lenin lived, lives and will live."
But Medvedev said many Russians appear to be uneasy with democracy, which they associate with the upheaval of the early post-Soviet years.
"For many of our citizens, the difficult political -- and most importantly economic -- processes of the 1990s were linked with the advent of the main institutions of democracy in our country, and this was a very difficult period for them. This affixed an impression on their understanding of the term," he said.
He appeared to be cautioning that any progress toward greater democracy would be gradual.
Russia's commitment to democracy has come under question recently before this month's mayoral election in the city of Sochi -- an important election for Russia's international image because Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Several candidates have been removed from the ballot, including tycoon Alexander Lebedev, who co-owns a 49-percent share in Novaya Gazeta along with former reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
Another candidate, prominent Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, has blamed the government for an attack on him last month when he was doused with ammonia. But Medvedev brushed off a Novaya Gazeta interviewer's suggestion that it might be better to cancel the election than to hold one that is not democratic.
"In elections there always will be candidates who lose, candidates who are disqualified -- it's that way in the whole world. But in general I consider that for democracy such vivid campaigns are good," he said.
The interview was published a few hours before Medvedev was to meet in the Kremlin with representatives of his advisory council on developing civil institutions, another move that could bolster his image as a liberal.