- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev lent credence to his image as a cautious liberal Wednesday when a publication critical of the Kremlin ran his first Russian newspaper interview.

Although Medvedev’s interview with Novaya Gazeta did not break new ground, it was symbolic. The newspaper has consistently challenged the Kremlin on matters including human rights, freedom of speech and Russia’s alleged backsliding on democracy.

Medvedev also acknowledged separately Wednesday that officials unfairly hinder rights activists’ work.

Medvedev, who took office in May, has not diverged significantly from the policies of his predecessor and mentor Vladimir Putin. Putin 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 Medvedev appears to be positioning himself as the more conciliatory leader _ Putin has never given an interview to Novaya Gazeta.

Four Novaya Gazeta journalists have been killed or died in suspicious circumstances over the past decade, including Anna Politkovskaya whose 2006 murder stoked international outrage. Medvedev met privately with the newspaper’s editors after the latest killing, when reporter Anastasia Barburova was shot dead on a Moscow street in January as she walked with an activist lawyer who also was killed.

Critics fault Russian leaders for not vigorously denouncing such killings. The murders were not discussed in the interview conducted Monday, but Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said that he had wanted to show support for a newspaper that had suffered so many losses.

Medvedev told rights activists in a meeting at the Kremlin Wednesday that the work of nongovernment organizations had been unfairly restricted. The statement was in marked contrast with the policy of Putin who oversaw the toughening of registration rules for NGOs during his presidency.

“There is a mass of cases when the activity of NGOs is restricted without sufficient reason,” Medvedev said. The legislation was “clearly not ideal,” said Medvedev. “Some changes are possible, and even essential,” he added.

In the newspaper interview, 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.

___

Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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