The beginning of a new Russian 'thaw'?

Meeting between most powerful man in Russia and Moscow newspaper editor may be seen as milestone event.

Baburova  248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Baburova 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
When Vladimir Putin nominated Dmitry Medvedev to be his successor as president of the Russian Federation on December 10, 2008, Western observers reacted with relief. Medvedev was the best possible candidate in Putin's entourage, and the West's preferred choice as a future partner in negotiations - at least, given the alternatives. At the same time, most pundits in both Russia and the West were sceptical not only the about the actual prerogatives which Russia's third president would possess with Putin being prime minister "under" him. Many also had their doubts concerning the depth and sincerity of the strikingly liberal and democratic worldview that Medvedev expressed in numerous interviews and articles before his nomination for president. Some saw and see the relatively young lawyer, who hails from a family of St. Petersburg intellectuals, as Putin's puppet. Others suspected that Medvedev's pro-Western talk was just PR, and his nomination for president little more than a cunning move by the Kremlin's shrewd "political technologists." While the question of Medvedev's actual power remains open, his almost one-hour-long meeting last Thursday with Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Russia's main independent periodical Novaya Gazeta, gives reason for hope. Medvedev had invited Muratov and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, one of Novaya Gazeta's major curators and stockholders, to the Kremlin in reaction to the recent killings of the human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anastasia Baburova, both widely discussed in both Russian and Western media. Although the meeting was a closed one and has, apparently, not been taped, Muratov was given permission by Medvedev to report on their conversation. IF WE ARE to believe Muratov's detailed description of the discussion, Medvedev expressed considerable agreement with Muratov's critical view of recent developments in Russia. In a best-case scenario, this could have far-reaching consequences for Russia's domestic and foreign policies. The meeting by itself is remarkable. Among the few Russian independent media outlets left, Novaya Gazeta has been one of the harshest and most respected public critics of the political changes under Putin, often attacking his decisions as scathingly as Western media does. Muratov's and Gorbachev's meeting with the president will strengthen the public standing of the embattled newspaper which several times seemed on the verge of being shut down. Moreover, Medvedev - according to Muratov's report on the radio station Ekho Moskvy - announced a number of initiatives which, if implemented, would challenge the nationalist camp that has become dominant in Russian politics over the last few years. According to Muratov, Medvedev repeated his previously announced intention to resolutely fight rising Russian neo-fascist tendencies. According to his own report, Muratov replied that democracy is the only alternative to fascism, and that in Russia the remnants of the democratic movement are regularly attacked by the mass media. "Medvedev laughed and responded that he does not give any instructions in that regard, and that, likely this was a leftover phenomenon concerning those people whom [Muratov] in this conversation called the Kremlin's fulltime propaganda employees." It appears that, oddly, Medvedev was thus distancing himself from his own underlings. MEDVEDEV ALSO SPOKE OUT, as he had done before, in favor of humanization of the notorious Russian court, detention and prison system. When Muratov complained about the partial rehabilitation of Stalin in current Russian public discourse, Medvedev agreed that "it is necessary that the people understand and research the period [of Stalin's rule]." The president, according to Muratov, fully supported the initiative of a number of Russian nongovernmental organizations and prominent personalities to erect a monument to the victims of Stalinism. Muratov and Medvedev also agreed on the need to fight corruption. In addition, Muratov suggested that current Kremlin officials engaged in "silly propaganda" should be replaced with liberal intellectuals like Aleksandr Auzan or Igor Yurgens - a proposal with which Medvedev, allegedly, also agreed. What is, perhaps, most important is that Muratov was obviously left with a positive impression of Medvedev, and pleasantly surprised by the level of his knowledge of Russia's ailments and by the Kremlin's chief ability to listen. It would be going too far to speak now of an alliance of Russia's formally most powerful man with Moscow's most respected liberal newspaper. Nevertheless, this meeting could one day be seen as a symbolic and consequential event in post-Soviet Russia. When Gorbachev more than 20 years ago started a comparable rapprochement with Moscow's liberal intellectuals, this move ushered in the democratization of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Whether Medvedev's demonstrative support for Novaya Gazeta represents the starting point of a similar transformation remains to be seen. The writer is editor of the Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society series and co-editor of the Russian Web-journal Forum for the Contemporary History and Culture of Eastern Europe. He also administers the Russian Nationalism Web site, which provides extensive up-to-date information on recent trends in Russian right-wing thought and politics.