- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

Russian reformers are still struggling, despite hopes that their country’s economic crisis and warming relations with the United States might provide the basis for relaxing measures against dissent.

So far, there appear to be no serious political challenges to the government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The popularity of the two had been bolstered by Russia’s previously strong economy. However, a crash in oil prices, Russia’s conflict with Georgia last summer and the global financial collapse that emanated from the United States has frightened away investors and collapsed the ruble against the dollar.

Still, Russia specialists detect no indications that the Medvedev-Putin government is facing any meaningful threat.

“You do not see any kind of open, public, liberal movement, which would pressure the government to move in the direction of political freedom,” said Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, the approval ratings for both Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev hover in the high 60 percent range.

After Mr. Medvedev’s election in 2008, there was speculation that he would be a less authoritarian figure than his predecessor. Mr. Medvedev’s campaign had stressed themes such as private property and lower taxes.

Russia specialists noted that the new president, who was 42 at the time of his election, came of age politically after the Soviet Union had collapsed, whereas Mr. Putin, more than a decade older, is a former KGB operative.

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that hopes that Mr. Medvedev would govern with less of an iron hand have been dashed.

“Maybe he’s a closet liberal, but if he’s going to come out of the closet, he hasn’t yet,” Mr. Cohen said.

Indeed, the Russian president has further consolidated power in the Kremlin.

Last month, he abruptly replaced Yuri A. Yevdokimov, the governor of Russia’s Murmansk region, after the governor criticized Mr. Putin’s United Russia party and supported an independent candidate for mayor in the city of Murmansk.

Another mayoral candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a noted reformer, is running against United Russia in the southern city of Sochii - host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games - and has reported being harassed and denied access to media. The election is scheduled for April 26.

Meanwhile, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the deposed head of the Yukos oil company and political rival of Mr. Putin, went on trial last week for the second time since his arrest in 2003, this time on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. Mr. Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year term set to run out in 2011, just before Russia’s next presidential elections.

Mr. Simes said that current authoritarian policies are less a legacy of the Soviet Union than of the 1990s, when Russia’s economy and prestige collapsed under President Boris Yeltsin.

“This is not Soviet imperialism, but traditional Russian nationalism,” Mr. Simes said.

The Putin-Medvedev approach to foreign as well as domestic policies remains tough, despite a warming trend with the United States reflected in last week’s meeting in London between President Obama and Mr. Medvedev.

Russia has kept soldiers in areas that were under Georgian control until last summer. It continues to oppose vehemently missile defense in Europe and NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and it has announced plans to upgrade its nuclear submarine fleet.

Russia recently announced that it was creating a new branch of the military to expand and defend Russian interests in the Arctic, which is rich in oil.

“Unfortunately, we see only a tendency towards more nationalism, more anti-Americanism, and a harder line towards the neighbors,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Simes said that the Russian people are willing to tolerate a degree of authoritarianism after the decline and chaos of the 1990s. “There was a kind of strong populist support for mild authoritarian rule established by Putin,” he said.

Toby Gati, a Russia specialist and former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Clinton administration, said Mr. Medvedev may prove more flexible than Mr. Putin in improving relations with the United States, as signaled by the agreement reached with Mr. Obama last week to accelerate efforts to negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty.

“Maybe Medvedev wants to become the foreign-policy president,” Mrs. Gati said.

But a move toward “resetting” U.S.-Russia ties, in the parlance of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appears to have had little impact on Russian domestic politics.

Indeed, last week, noted Russian human rights campaigner Lev Ponomarev was brutally beaten by unidentified assailants in Moscow.

Mr. Obama said Friday that serious differences with Russia remain, even while “there is a great potential to improve U.S.-Russia relations.”

”I think that it is important for NATO allies to engage Russia and to recognize that they have legitimate interests,” he said. “In some cases, we’ve got common interests. But we also have some core disagreements.”

Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently that “2008 was the most contentious year in U.S.-Russian relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and that challenges from Russia would continue.

c Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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