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Friday, 17 April 2009

Democracy has been, is, and will continue to be.

Artwork: Konstantin Latyshev: "Russia. Elections 2008. Kommunyaki Socialistovich Revengerov vs. Efesbee Kaygeebeeovich Spyov
Earlier this week President Medvedev gave his first interview to a Russian newspaper - his publication of choice seemed to be a significant one. He spoke fairly extensively with Dmitri Muratov, editor of Novaia Gazeta – one of the few papers in Russia to maintain a staunchly critical stance towards the Kremlin and an inquisitive nose for sensitive stories. Novaia Gazeta might not have a massive distribution in Russia, an interview might not change the world and the responses given by Medvedev may not have departed from the general rhetoric, but for the optimistic amongst us, pushing aside the plethora of potential ulterior motives, the very fact that Novaia Gazeta was granted this interview signals perhaps a start towards a more conciliatory era in relations between the state and the press.

I’ve picked out a few bits of the interview that I found the most interesting. You can read the full text (in Russian) here:


On the upcoming elections in Sochi – destination Winter Olympics 2012.

Muratov: Don’t you think perhaps it would be best to just cancel the elections in Sochi, rather than stage them? It would be less cynical to do so. Lebedev who was running for Mayor has been forced to step out of the race by the courts, whilst Nemtsov (also running) has been denied the chance to run his election campaign.

Medvedev: I don’t yet know who has been removed from the race or how, but I do know however, that at this moment in time there is a fully rigorous political battle going on in Sochi, and it is a good thing that there are representatives of various political groups taking part. In my opinion, the problem with many municipal elections is that they are too uniform – people don’t have anyone to choose from and find them dull.

On the social contract and presidential Council on civil society and human rights which took place on April 15th.

Muratov: Am I right in thinking that civil society is today more important to you than a society of government officials?

Medvedev: You know - civil society is something that we still haven’t entirely learned how to comprehend properly in Russia […]. But gradually we are beginning to understand that civil society is an integral social institution of any state. It is a feed-back institution; organisations of people who do not have a post in government or in the civil service, but who actively participate in the life of the country. […] I’d like to point out: such relations [between state and civil society] are never simple for any government. This is because civil society and representatives of human-rights organisations have many bones to pick with the state and the government. They want to ask a lot of questions; and one doesn’t always want to have to answer them. And this is precisely why such an exchange should be of an official nature - this is the aim of the Council. I am expecting that the discussion will be most interesting. Obviously, it will be tough. But this is precisely why it is important.

On the new law requiring civil servants and members of the government to declare their income.

Muratov: It has not really been made clear who it is that will be checking these declarations for their authenticity. It seems that over the past few days in Russia a powerful community of “impoverished” husbands with very affluent wives has appeared…

Medvedev: You know, the task of controlling the bureaucracy and government officials is one of the fundamental tasks of any state. We started doing this quite a long time ago and I can’t really say that we have had much success. Although if you were to compare with the situation in the 1990s and the situation today, I most definitely think that there has been an improvement. […] In my opinion, the main problem today is not the lack of normative acts on control, but lack of rigorous implementation of these acts. This is, of course, where the difficulty lies - because bureaucrats are never very satisfied when they are obliged to control themselves. However, these procedures must be followed despite the fact that no-one likes controlling themselves, no-one likes confining themselves within strict frameworks; they must be followed because this is what distinguishes a civilised society from an uncivilised one – a civilised society doesn’t like it, but it has learnt to do so all the same.


Muratov: Have you personally felt a negative reaction from bureaucrats? Or have they been understanding over your decision to enforce the publication of their declaration of income?

Medvedev: Well, you know, the post of president frees one of having to hear the negative reaction of bureaucrats. I made this decision – and everyone else has to carry it out.

On the independency of the judiciary and the Khordokovskii affair.

Muratov: I’d like to ask you about the second YUKOS trial. Did you find its outcome predictable? The outcome of the first trial, for anyone who took an interest in it, was, alas, rather predictable. Someone wrote in to me and said: perhaps in the beginning Medvedev is just going to ring up the courts, including that involved in the YUKOs trial and say “you’re independent, you’re independent, let me remind you, you’re independent, you’re independent, you’re independent! "And that will be a manual kick-start for the restoration of the judiciary system.

Medvedev: I can tell you now, that any manual kick-start is very costly and I’m not just talking about the courts system here. It is simply necessary to strive towards a state machine that works in a rational way automatically. [As for the YUKOs trial] perhaps the outcome of one or another trial someone found predictable. This is the freedom and the luckiness of a person who does not have state obligations.
However, whilst for everyone else, it’s a personal matter, it would be illegal for the president to find a court’s decision predictable. It would be a sign that the law has been broken. For civil servants and for the president there is not and should not be any inkling whatsoever of predictability of the outcome of any trial, and this includes the YUKOs trial.

On the regional authorities… and rumours

Muratov: In the city of Maiskii in Kabardino-Balkaria a rumour was doing the rounds that President Medvedev was soon coming to visit, since Medvedev’s grandmother lives somewhere in the region. And what did the local authorities do when they couldn’t find the said grandmother? Just in case, they re-laid all the roads in Maiskii; cleared out tonnes of rubbish; paved the main square; put up streetlamps; everyone was happy. Why don’t we spread rumours that Medvedev’s, Surkov’s or some other government ministers’ grandmothers live in various towns throughout Russia and perhaps the fear would make more local authorities come to their senses.

Medvedev: That’s quite a good technique… I can see what’s happened here. Once, in Maiskii, if I’m not mistaken, my grandfather worked as regional party secretary. This was 60 years ago however, but perhaps that’s where they’ve got it from.

On democracy in Russia.

Muratov: Today you’ve spoken about the elections, about control over bureaucrats, about the internet. Does this mean that President Medvedev is planning to rehabilitate democracy in Russia?

Medvedev: You know, I think that democracy in its own right is in no need for any kind of rehabilitation. Democracy is a historical notion and at the same time a wholly supranational one. Therefore democracy is not in need of rehabilitation anywhere. It’s another matter that for many of our citizens the very difficult political and, more importantly, economic upheavals of the 1990s at some point fused with the arrival of the first fundamental democratic institutes in our country. For these citizens these times were extremely difficult and this made a scar on their understanding of democracy. But this is just through personal experience, rather than their understanding of democratic institutions as a whole. Therefore I do not believe that we need to rehabilitate democracy. Democracy has been, is, and will continue to be.


Katie said...

I was half way through translating this article - you translate far more quickly than I do!
Two interesting opinions on this:

1. From Al Jazeera:

2. From a student, who claims that the Medvedev/Putin duo is very clever and this is a PR exercise to get the liberals on board - as is the alleged rift between the two.

I'm with you on the optimistic side, however!

Caroline said...

I bloomin' translated it didn't I, and then found it already translated on "Russia Beyond the Headlines". Gah!

Al Jazeera seem quite optimistic, but if you read the comments on the NG site, many are seeing it as a cynical ploy. Muratov says: staging elections is more cynical than cancelling them. Some readers say: faking freedom of speech is more cynical than banning it outright.

Could be a fair point, but I'm for wary mild optimism, especially cause spring has sprung in Moscow and it's lovely!