Saturday, May 17, 2008

Russia: A totalitarian regime in thrall to a Tsar who's creating the new Facist empire


As ex-President Putin settles in to his new role as Prime Minister, he has every reason to congratulate himself.

After all, he has not only written the script for his constitutional coup d'etat, but staged the play and given himself the starring role as well.

Of course, he has given a walk-on role to Dmitry Medvedev, his personally anointed successor.

But the transfer of power from Putin to his Little Sir Echo, Medvedev, and the show of military strength with those soldiers and clapped-out missiles in Red Square on Victory Day which followed it last week, made it clear who is really in charge.

No decision of any significance for the Russian people or the rest of us will be made in the foreseeable future without the say - so of Medvedev's unsmiling master.

Just before he stood down as President, Putin declared: "I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning til night, and I have given all I could to this work. I am happy with the results."

As he surveys the nation today he reminds me of that chilling poem by Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting, in which the dreaded bird sits at the top of a tall tree musing: "Now I hold all Creation in my foot - I kill as I please because it is all mine - I am going to keep things like this."

In a way he is right to be so self-satisfied. He has told the Russian people that life is much better than it was before he took over - and, after a journey of some 10,000 miles across the largest country in the world for a new book and BBC TV series, I am in no doubt that the majority of his subjects believe him.

I travelled from cities to towns to villages by road, rail and boat and met a great diversity of people - from St Petersburg glitterati to impoverished potato-pickers, from a witch who charms the sprites of the forest to the mountain herdsmen who worship fire and water, from oilmen to woodcutters.

It was an exhilarating and revelatory experience in a land of extremes. But it was also deeply disturbing.

Despite the fact that Putin's Russia is increasingly autocratic and irredeemably corrupt, the man himself - their born-again Tsar - is overwhelmingly regarded as the answer to the nation's prayers.

Russia has a bloody and tormented history. Its centuries of suffering - its brutalities, its wars and revolutions, culminating in the collapse of communism and the anarchic buffoonery of the Yeltsin years - have taken a terrible psychological toll.

Cynicism and fatalism which eat away at the human psyche have wormed their way into the very DNA of the Russian soul.

In a nation that has not tasted and - with very few exceptions - does not expect or demand justice or freedom, all that matters is stability and security.

And, to a degree, Putin has delivered these twin blessings. But the price has been exorbitant and the Russians have been criminally short-changed.

Putin boasts that since he came into office investment in the Russian economy has increased sevenfold (reaching $82.3 billion in 2007) and that the country's GDP has risen by more than 70 per cent.

Over the same period, average real incomes have more than doubled. But they started from a very low base and they could have done far better.

Nor is this growth thanks either to the Kremlin's leadership or a surge of entrepreneurial energy.

On the contrary, it is almost solely down to Russia's vast reserves of oil and gas.

When Putin came to power, the world price of crude oil was $16 dollars a barrel; it has now soared to more than $120 dollars - and no one knows where or when this bonanza will end.

But this massive flow of funds into the nation's coffers has not been used "to share the proceeds of growth" with the people; to reduce the obscene gulf in income between the rich and poor.

It has not helped to resurrect a health service which is on its knees (and is ranked by the World Health Organisation as 130th out of the 190 countries of the UN), or to rebuild an education system which is so under-funded that the poor have to pay to get their children into a half-decent school or college.

It has not brought gas and running water to the villages where the peasants have been devastated by the collapse of the collectives, or even developed the infrastructure that a 21st century economy needs to compete with the rest of the world.

Russia may be a member of the G8 whose GDP (because of oil) should soon overtake the United Kingdom, but, in many ways, it is more like a Third World country.

Stricken with an epidemic of AIDS and alcoholism which both contribute to a male life expectancy of 58 years, the population is projected to shrink from 145 million to 120 million within a few decades.

So where has all the oil wealth gone? According to an Independent Experts Report, written by two former high-level Kremlin insiders who have had the courage to speak out, "a criminal system of government [has] taken shape under Putin" in which the Kremlin has been selling state assets cheaply to Putin's cronies and buying others assets back from them at an exorbitant price.

Among such dubious transactions the authors cite the purchase by the state-owned Gasprom (run until a few months ago by Dmitry Medvedev) of a 75 per cent share in an oil company called Sifnet (owned by Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who owns Chelsea Football Club).

In 1995 Abramovich, one of Putin's closest allies, paid a mere $100 million for Sifnet; ten years later, the government shelled out $13.7 billion for it - an astronomical sum and far above the going market rate.

Even more explosively, the authors claim the Kremlin has created a "friends-of-Putin" oil export monopoly, not to mention a secret "slush fund" to reward the faithful.

According to an analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Centre, which promotes greater collaboration between the U.S. and Russia, the report is "a bomb which, anywhere but in Russia, would cause the country to collapse".

In Britain such revelations would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation - if not the downfall of the government.

But because of Putin's totalitarian grasp on power (he has not only appointed his own Cabinet, which used to be the prerogative of the President, but will remain in charge of the nation's economy), there will be no inquiry.

You can forget any talk from the new President about "stamping out" corruption. This social and economic disease is insidious and rampant.

According to Transparency International - a global society which campaigns against corruption - Russia has become a world leader in the corruption stakes. Foreign analysts estimate that no less than $30 billion a year is spent to grease official palms to oil the wheels of trade and commerce.

But when you raise the subject, Russians shrug their shoulders: "What's the problem?" they retort.

"That's how the system works. It will never change."

And that is because everyone is at it. From corporations (including foreign investors who claim to have clean hands but cover their tracks by establishing local "shell" companies to pay the bribes) to the humblest individuals who buy their way out of a driving ban.

In a country where the "separation of powers" has become a bad joke, the law courts are no less corrupt.

Except perhaps for minor misdemeanours at local level, the judiciary is in thrall to the Kremlin and its satraps.

The threat of prosecution for tax fraud is the Kremlin's weapon of choice against anyone who dares to challenge its hegemony.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, used his oil wealth to promote human rights and democracy, Putin detected a threat to his throne.

The oligarch was duly arrested and convicted of fraud. He now languishes in a Siberian jail where he is in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence.

None of this is a matter of public debate in Russia where the media has been muzzled by the Kremlin, their freedom of expression stifled by the government.

Almost every national radio and television station is now controlled directly or indirectly by the state, and the same applies to every newspaper of any influence.

In the heady days immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet empire, editors and reporters competed to challenge the mighty and to uncover scandal and corruption.

Now they cower from the wrath of the state and its agents in the police and the security services.

That diminishing number who have the courage to investigate or speak out against the abuses perpetrated by the rich and powerful very soon find themselves out of a job - or, in an alarming number of cases, on the receiving end of a deadly bullet.

Some 20 Russian journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances since Putin came to office. No one has yet been convicted for any of these crimes.

Putin calls the system over which he presides "sovereign democracy". I think a better term is "cryptofascism" - though even the Kremlin's few critics in Russia recoil when I suggest this.

After all, their parents and grandparents helped save the world from Hitler - at a cost of 25 million Soviet lives. Nonetheless, the evidence is compelling.

The structure of the state - the alliance between the Kremlin, the oligarchs, and the security services - is awesomely powerful.

No less worryingly is popular distaste - often contempt - for democracy and indifference to human rights.

In the absence of any experience of accountability or transparency - the basic ingredients of an open society - even the most thoughtful Russians are prone to say: "Russia needs a strong man at the centre. Putin has made Russia great again. Now the world has to listen."

The new Prime Minister has brilliantly exploited the patriotism and latent xenophobia of the Russia people to unify them in the belief that they face a major threat from NATO and the United States.

This combination of national pride and insecurity has been fuelled by the America with its proposed deployment of missiles only a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border, allegedly to counter a nuclear threat from Iran.

No serious defence analyst believes this makes any strategic sense, while even impeccably pro-Western Russians recoil from this crass assertion of super-power hegemony by President Bush.

Similarly most Russians feel threatened - and humiliated - by the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia, once the most intimate allies of the Soviet Union, may soon be enfolded in the arms of NATO.

Georgia, which is struggling to contain a separatist movement that is openly supported by the Kremlin, has the potential to become a dangerous flashpoint in which the Western allies could only too easily become ensnared.

Does this mean - as some have argued - that we are about to face a new Cold War? I don't think so for a moment.

With communism consigned to "the dustbin of history", there is no ideological conflict of any significance. And there is now only one military superpower.

In comparison with America, Russia's armed forces are a joke. Only catastrophic stupidity on either side could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

But this does not mean that we can all breathe a sigh of relief and forget about the Bear.

An autocratic and resurgent Russia that feels bruised and threatened is an unstable beast.

The Kremlin's growing rapprochement with Beijing (the adversaries of a generation ago are now not only major trading partners, but conduct joint military exercises) shifts the balance of power in the world.

And as life on earth becomes less and less secure, with evermore people competing for a dwindling supply of vital resources, Russia, as an energy giant, is once again a big player on the world stage.

Make no mistake, we are in for a very bumpy ride.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vladimir Putin to be chairman of ruling party

By Will Stewart in Moscow

Vladimir Putin tightened his grip on power in Russia yesterday by agreeing to become chairman of the ruling United Moscow party when he steps down as president next month and becomes prime minister.

Vladimir Putin 'to wed Olympic gymnast half his age'

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration

In a move that will strengthen his long-term hold over Russia, possibly at the expense of his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin accepted an offer to become Chairman of the pro-Kremlin party at a congress in Moscow.

As prime minister Mr Putin will control the day-to-day functioning of Russia's government. The additional job will give him sweeping powers over the Duma, Russia's lower house, where United Russia has 315 out of 450 seats, as well as over regional legislatures, also dominated by the party.

Accepting the position, Mr Putin said he was "ready to take added responsibility and head United Russia".

He added: "I promise that I will do everything to strengthen the party's influence and authority, to use its capabilities in the interests of the country's development."

advertisementHis remarks drew a standing ovation from the hundreds of delegates and guests in the packed hall.

Mr Putin has previously declined offers to become the party head. But by becoming party chairman, analysts believe he has put himself in an unassailable position.

Previous presidents - including himself - fired prime ministers almost at will. Now, as party chairman as well, it is unlikely Mr Medvedev would be able to do this to him.

Mr Putin hands over to his hand-picked successor on May 7, and the next day he is expected to become prime minister. But rumours abound that he will seek yet another presidential term in 2012, or perhaps even earlier.

His hold on the majority party in parliament might mean he could, if he chose, force an end to a Medvedev presidency.

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship after he leaves office on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration.

He is expected to hold the post for a four-year term, giving him control over the Duma until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2011.

Mr Putin, who led the United Russia ticket in the Dec 2 elections but is not a party member, told the congress that he would juggle his party responsibilities with his job as prime minister.

He asked party leader Boris Gryzlov to continue coordinating United Russia's current activities, a move expected to free Mr Putin from the day-to-day duties of running a political party.

His decision to chair the party without joining it will allow him to remain "a sort of supraparty leader," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and Duma deputy with United Russia.

Mr Putin himself has criticised United Russia but has said it is the best party the country has to offer. On Tuesday, he repeated his call for the party to become more open to discussion and establish a more constructive dialogue with society.

He said: "It should be 'de-bureaucratised' and cleansed of strange people pursuing only selfish goals."

United Russia dismisses comparisons with the Soviet-era Communist Party, despite similarities in rituals and routine.

During the two-day congress, party delegates rubber-stamped every proposal submitted by the party leadership. Not a single delegate voted against the proposals or abstained.

The party's key backers are those holding positions of power in most Russian regions.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Weekend in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to resolve their differences over a U.S. missile defense system at a farewell meeting on Sunday, with Bush saying the system is not aimed at Russia but at regimes that "could try to hold us hostage."

Bush also met Putin's hand-picked successor and pronounced him "a straightforward fellow."

He did not give President-elect Dmitry Medvedev the kind of unvarnished embrace he gave Putin seven years ago, but told reporters after meeting Medvedev: "You can write down, I was impressed and look forward to working with him."

At a joint news conference at Putin's Black sea vacation home, Putin was asked whether he or his protege would be in charge of Russia's foreign policy in early May - when Putin steps down as president and becomes prime minister

Putin said Medvedev would, and that he would represent Russia at the Group of Eight meeting of industrial democracies in July in Tokyo. "Mr. Medvedev has been one of the co-authors of Russia's foreign policy," Putin said. "He's completely on top of things."

At their final meeting as presidents of their respective countries, Bush and Putin complimented each other lavishly, but acknowledged they remained at odds on some major issues, principally missile defense and NATO's eastward expansion.

Putin called the U.S. missile plan - which envisions basing tracking radar sites in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland - the most contentious of U.S.-Russian differences and the one the hardest to reconcile. "Our fundamental attitude toward the American plan has not changed," he said.

But, he said, "the best thing is to work jointly" on such a system. "We've got a lot of way to go," Bush acknowledged.

He said he viewed the U.S. plan - as "defense, not offense. And, obviously, we've got a lot of work to convince the experts this defense system is not aimed at Russia."

Bush also said that the system is designed to deal with "regimes that could try to hold us hostage" in a clear reference to Iran. "The system is not designed to deal with Russia's capacity to launch multiple rockets," he said.

The president blamed lingering Cold War thinking by some in both Russia and the United States for making it harder to reach agreement on missile defense. "We spent a lot of time in our relationship trying to get rid of the Cold War," he said. "It's over. It ended."

Both said they agreed to cooperate with one another in continuing to talk about the missile defense system.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley, talking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route back to Washington, was asked if a deal can be struck before Bush leaves office. "I don't think that matters," he replied. "They can leave that to their prospective successors."

Commenting on whether the dispute over expansion of NATO had soured the atmosphere for the Bush-Putin talks, Hadley said, "It didn't in any way poison the Sochi meeting."

During the news conference, Bush bristled at a journalist's question that suggested the two leaders were merely "kicking the can down the road" on the vexing missile defense issue.

"You can cynically say that it is kicking the can down the road," Bush said. "I don't appreciate that, because this is an important part of my belief that it is necessary to protect ourselves."

In a joint declaration, Bush and Putin said: "The Russian side has made clear that it does not agree with the decision to establish sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and reiterated its proposed alternative. Yet, it appreciates the measures that the U.S. has proposed and declared that if agreed and implemented such measures will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns."

However, the two sides did agree to "develop a legally-binding arrangement following expiration" in December 2009 of the strategic arms limitation treaty (START). Their joint declaration noted the "substantial reductions already carried out" under that pact, which they said was an important step in reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads.

On NATO, Russia remains adamantly opposed to the eastward expansion of the alliance into its backyard that Bush has actively championed over Putin's vocal objections.

The Sochi meeting came just days after NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Romania to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. However, the alliance rebuffed U.S. attempts to begin the process of inviting Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, to join, although their eventual admission seems likely.

The two leaders agreed to a "strategic framework" to guide future U.S. -Russian relations.

It was seven years ago in June that Bush famously declared he had looked into Putin's eyes at their first face-to-face meeting and "was able to get a sense of his soul" and found him to be honest, straightforward and trustworthy.

Relations grew stronger when Putin stood with the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the era of cooperation quickly began to unravel as Russia opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and as the Russian leader consolidated his power and took steps to roll back democratic advances.

Asked about those earlier comments about Putin's "soul," Bush said Sunday that his first impression was that he believed Putin would be "the kind of person who would tell me what's on his mind" and that he turned out to be so.

As to the incoming president, Bush said, "I just met the man for 20 minutes."

Still, Bush said, "He seemed like a very straightforward fellow. My first impressions are very favorable."

Bush met with Medvedev shortly before his news conference with Putin and received a pledge from the incoming president to work to strengthen relations between the two countries.

Medvedev told Bush that he hopes to follow in Putin's footsteps in advancing U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the last eight years, Bush and Putin "did a lot to advance U.S.-Russian relations" and that relationship was "a key factor in international security," Medvedev. "I would like to do my part to keep up that work," he added.

Bush told Medvedev, "I'm looking forward to getting to know you so we'll be able to work through common problems and find common opportunities."

Hadley, when asked whether he thought Putin actually was going to cede authority on Russian foreign policy to Medvedev, said, "My guess is that these two men who have worked very closely together for n ow almost two decades will have a very collaborative relationship. That seems to be a good thing, not a bad thing."

Bush and Putin met with news reporters after talks at Putin's vacation house.

Putin greeted Bush at the door of the guesthouse there and escorted him downstairs to a wood-paneled room with tall windows facing the sea. They sat alongside each other in chairs before a fireplace with unlit logs. A crush of cameramen, photographers and reporters crowded the room.

The Russian president said they had started discussing security issues and bilateral matters over dinner on Saturday and would continue their talks today "in a common working manner." Putin put in another plug for the Winter Olympic games that Sochi will host in 2014.

Their introductory remarks were mostly light-hearted. Bush joked about asked to join in a traditional folk dance during the dinner entertainment the previous evening. "I'm only happy that my press corps didn't see me try to dance the dance I was asked to do."

"We have been able to see you're a brilliant dancer," Putin replied good naturedly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A 'Bout' of Russian terror

The Washington Times – Ed Royce

April 1, 2008

Maybe Viktor Bout got complacent. Accustomed to profiting in the world's roughest places while brazenly defying law enforcement, this notorious gun runner fell three weeks ago, arrested by Thai authorities in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Bangkok. An arms smuggling conviction would put this very dangerous man out of business. He is a survivor, though, and we should not breathe easy until an extradited and shackled Mr. Bout hits United States soil.

A former Soviet pilot dubbed the "Merchant of Death," Mr. Bout has fueled many brutal civil wars, mainly with former East Bloc state arsenals. In the 1990s, he dealt weapons to the several sides fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebels in Angola, breaking international arms embargoes. Some have linked him to the Rwandan genocide. One good customer was the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who relied on Mr. Bout to arm his reign of terror in West Africa, which landed Taylor in The Hague to face war crimes charges.

This man has plagued four continents. He simultaneously armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance; he had dealings with Hezbollah and the FARC in Colombia. Indeed, Mr. Bout thought he was negotiating a deal to provide the FARC with millions of dollars in arms when he was arrested. The deal included 100 advanced Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles, capable of downing an aircraft. Federal prosecutors in New York are seeking his extradition to stand trial for providing material support to this Colombian terrorist organization.

Viktor Bout is the model. Unfortunately there exists a class of rogues: gray-area figures who help destroy states and the rule of law while avoiding scrutiny. He and other smugglers are not small-timers. Mr. Bout has amassed a logistical capability that rivals many NATO countries, operating dozens of planes. Today the paramount concern is that his type of global delivery system might transport a nuclear weapon. Their credo is anything for money. The arrest of this man, the best known of the lot, hopefully signals a new alertness to the dangers poised by these networks.

The United States and others have spent much to build stability in Africa. We have been successful in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Millions of lives have been saved by ending these brutal conflicts. But stability is very fragile; all it takes is a few dozen rebels armed by the likes of Viktor Bout to enflame a rebuilding country. Taking on the Bouts of the world would better protect these investments.

Extradition experts give Mr. Bout only a fifty percent chance of facing justice in the United states, though. Thai police have said Mr. Bout's extradition would have to wait until he was tried in Thailand. Meanwhile, the Russian government reportedly is pressuring Thai authorities to set him free. For years, he has operated out of Moscow, in the open, despite an Interpol arrest warrant. He has ties to Russian intelligence. Beware of Russian promises to "try" Mr. Bout at home.

The diplomatic instinct in the State Department may be to play nice with Russia, especially since the Bush administration seeks a long-term agreement on U.S.-Russian relations. Recommendations to press Moscow on Mr. Bout years ago reportedly were set aside to win its cooperation in the war on terrorism. But this man is a terrorist. And there is nothing to be gained from acquiescing to yet another Russian effort at undermining the rule of law. We should be doing all we can to counter any Russian pressure on Bangkok. The arrest of Viktor Bout may signal an intolerance of an intolerable type of character. With a deadly past and dangerous future, he must face justice. Thai authorities should be commended for their cooperation, but only when Mr. Bout is securely on his way to our shores, which given likely Russian machinations, can't happen fast enough.

Representative Ed Royce. California Republican, is ranking member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Head of Russian Armed Forces To Quit: Reports


MOSCOW - The Russian armed forces chief of staff is close to stepping down after falling out with the defense minister, media reports in Moscow said March 25.

Gen. Yury Baluyevsky has already tendered his resignation to President Vladimir Putin, the English language daily Moscow Times said, citing an unnamed ministry source. The source said Baluyevsky had previously asked to be relieved of his post at least once, but had been refused.

Baluyevsky has been angered by a series of reforms pushed by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, according to Russian media. Serdyukov was appointed last year.

"In the near future, the defense ministry's chief of staff, Yury Baluyevsky, will probably leave," news site reported March 25.

A former furniture dealer, Serdyukov is the second civilian to head Russia's armed forces.

He has ruffled feathers in the ministry with plans to sell off assets, move the navy headquarters from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and with calls for job cuts in the ministry.

The row comes at a sensitive period in Russian politics. Putin is preparing to hand over to his successor Dmitry Medvedev in May, and Moscow is in a stand-off with Western countries over NATO expansion and U.S. plans for a European missile defense shield.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Crackdown on Kremlin foes, business, despite Medvedev's promises of change

The Associated Press

MOSCOW: Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president-elect, has preached freedom and the rule of law, and raised hopes for an end to government pressure on opposition leaders, rights advocates and businesses whose assets the Kremlin wants to control.

But events of past weeks are adding to mounting suspicions that Medvedev's presidency may not be all that different from that of his steely-eyed predecessor — Vladimir Putin.

Since Medvedev's election on March 2, authorities have continued to crack down on human rights activists and political critics. Nor did the election halt the targeting of foreign firms that control major Russian assets, like the British-Russian joint venture TNK-BP.

What is not clear is to what extent the events reflect the continuing influence of Putin and his allies or Medvedev's silent support for Putin's policies.

"Medvedev today is Putin yesterday. There is no change in the regime whatsoever," veteran human rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryev said.

Authorities in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday seized computer servers of a longtime campaigner against rights abuses in Chechnya. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, who has been repeatedly targeted for arrest, said the seizure coincided with searches at apartments of several activists from the Other Russia coalition.

In Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, a leader of the liberal political party Yabloko was jailed for nearly three weeks for allegedly interfering with police in a case supporters said was tied to his work organizing an opposition conference. A court on Friday ordered Maxim Reznik's release pending trial.

Officials also have searched the party's St. Petersburg headquarters looking for materials that allegedly could be considered extremist — a broad legal term that activists say is used for politically motivated prosecutions.

Other groups report similar pressure. Oleg Kozlovsky, who says he was drafted into the army because of his work with the activist group Oborona, told Ekho Moskvy radio that authorities were trying to evict him from his Moscow apartment, in retaliation for his activities.

Investigators continue to press their case against Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who was denied a spot on the presidential ballot. Officials accuse him of falsifying signatures on nominating petitions, and his supporters say authorities plans to file criminal charges in an effort to discredit him.

"We've seen in this last two months what the freedom (Medvedev) talks about really means," Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin and now a prominent critic, told reporters Thursday. "Are there any examples of real actions, not just words, that someone can use as proof that Medvedev is a liberal person, economically, politically or over civil rights?"

Medvedev has been credited with supporting more liberal economic and business policies. He reportedly supported, for example, easing restrictions in a bill to limit foreign ownership of Russian publishing companies and Internet providers.

But Medvedev also heads the gas giant OAO Gazprom, the state-controlled monopoly that has continued to play hardball tactics in negotiations over contracts to supply Ukraine with natural gas. Europe, which gets most of its Russian gas via Ukrainian pipeline, has accused Russia of using its energy assets as a political tool.

On Thursday, Russia's top security agency announced that two brothers with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship had been charged with industrial espionage involving Russian oil and gas fields. One of the brothers works for TNK-BP, the British-Russian joint venture whose Siberian fields are coveted by Kremlin-allied business interests.

In recent years, the government has used regulatory and criminal investigations to pressure major energy companies into ceding assets to state-controlled companies.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov tried to tamp speculation that the arrest of the TNK-BP worker was linked to troubled ties between Moscow and London. "There's no sense in searching for links between events that are in no way connected to each other," he was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Many, particularly in the West, pointed to Medvedev's background — lawyer, university professor, business executive — hoping that the Kremlin's hard-line domestic and foreign policies might soften with his election.

In a pre-election speech, Medvedev promised to champion media freedom, strengthen the judicial system and reform criminal legislation. He returned to those themes Wednesday in an address before the Public Chamber, an advisory body created by the Kremlin.

"A mature civil society is a vital necessity, a foundation, a guarantee of stable development of our nation," he said. "And our task is to create a system when civil society groups participate in setting the government course and assessing its efficiency."

Some observers wonder if Medvedev is just paying lip service to liberal ideals. Putin himself has warned that the West should not expect Medvedev to be a more compliant partner.

Medvedev won't formally take the reins of power until after his May 7 inauguration, and any change in Kremlin policies and practices — if they come — may come only gradually, and only after Medvedev installs his own team in positions of power.

But Putin is expected to become prime minister, and it remains to be seen whether Medvedev will try to alter his predecessor's course. To do so, he may have to dislodge the siloviki — veterans, like Putin, of the intelligence, police and military services — whom Putin has installed in positions of power.

Meanwhile, debate is growing among Russia's often fractious opposition groups as to how to continue their fight under Medvedev.

Ponomaryev predicted the Kremlin will seek to create a puppet opposition to create the appearance of a political counterbalance and quiet critics. That theory was bolstered earlier this month by a rare public meeting between Putin and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the national Yabloko party who, like other opposition figures, has been shut out of politics.

Some opposition groups berated Yavlinsky, who defended himself by saying he raised Reznik's arrest with Putin.

"There is a crisis among the opposition," said Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who has waged a determined, though largely ineffectual campaign against Putin. "A party that considers itself to be in opposition ought to behave in quite a different manner."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Medvedev Moves to Kremlin Early

MOSCOW (AP) — He will not be president for weeks, but Dmitry Medvedev has already moved into an office in the Kremlin — the seat of power in Russia.

State-run television showed Medvedev dressing down officials in a Kremlin office Thursday, and the Kremlin press service confirmed that he is now working from an office in the red-brick-walled compound at Moscow's heart rather than Russia's less grandiose government headquarters upriver.

Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's hand-picked successor, was elected by a large margin March 2 and is scheduled to be inaugurated May 7. The popular Putin is set to become his prime minister, prompting widespread speculation about who will really hold Russia's reins.

The office move looked like part of an effort to create the impression of a smooth transition and boost Medvedev's authority in the eyes of the public and officials used to working for Putin.

Medvedev won more than 70 percent of the votes, according to the official election tally, but Russians saw his victory as a foregone conclusion because of his backing from Putin and the Kremlin in a closely choreographed election. The sense that he was chosen to lead Russians, rather than vice versa, could take the edge off his authority.

State-run television footage of Medvedev's talks with two top officials involved in fishing and ports marked the more soft-spoken former law instructor's latest attempt to embody the firm, powerful image Putin has conveyed in meetings with sometimes squirming officials called to the Kremlin to report to their leader.

Facing the two officials from behind a sizable desk with three telephones at his side, Medvedev grilled them about orders he said they had failed to carry out on time. One of the officials was shown looking down at the desk in front of his and nervously scratching his forehead.

A presidential press service official who refused to be quoted by name, citing policy, would not say when Medvedev had moved into the Kremlin.

She said the change was provided for by a decree Putin signed the day after the election to provide Medvedev with support from the Kremlin staff and other trappings of the presidency.

On that day, Putin, 55, also put the 42-year-old Medvedev in charge of presidential State Council meetings, a symbolic show of trust in his younger protege who has made continuity of Putin's policies his chief promise.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Trouble with Russia

By Herbert E. Meyer

Each year a group of KGB Commissars would get together for a weekend of bear hunting. A helicopter would fly them to a clearing deep in the forest, leave them with their guns and camping gear, then pick them up two days later.

Now the hunting weekend has ended, and the Commissars are waiting in the clearing with their equipment and with the carcasses of three bears. The helicopter swoops in and lands, the pilot steps out and takes one look at the waiting cargo.

"Comrade Commissars," the pilot says. "I'm sorry, but I cannot take all three bears on board. The helicopter can carry only two. Please decide which one you wish to leave behind."

Two Commissars grab the pilot's arms, while a third slaps the pilot hard across his face and says, "Captain, this is precisely what you told us last year. As you no doubt will remember, that led to an unpleasant afternoon of beatings and threats against your family if you didn't take all three bears on board. In the end, you did as we ordered. Surely it won't be necessary to repeat all that again?"

The pilot nods glumly, then gets busy loading everything on board and they take off.

Ten minutes later the helicopter crashes. One of the Commissars is killed, and another has two broken legs. A third Commissar crawls out from the wreckage and drags himself over to the dazed pilot, who is lying on the ground nearby. The Commissar slaps the pilot across his face, sits him up and asks, "Captain, where are we?"

The pilot looks around and says, "Same place we crashed last year."

In the Cold War years we learned a great deal about KGB Commissars, and it turns out they all share the same two qualities: They are thugs -- and they are incapable of learning from experience.

Vladimir Putin has the heart and soul of a KGB Commissar -- which, of course, he once was. He's a thug, and he's learned nothing from his country's history. So he's driving Russia into the same ditch the communists drove it into back in the twentieth century. He's creating a one-party dictatorship in which the country's wealth will be owned or controlled by the State. Like all dictators, he's trying to gin up a foreign enemy -- that would be us -- to justify his domestic policies. And he's embarking on a course to achieve his communist predecessors' dream of imposing a sort of Pax Sovietica on the world.

The rigged election of Dmitri Medvedev as Russia's president on March 2 was, of course, merely window-dressing to show that Putin is obeying his country's constitution by limiting himself to two consecutive four-year terms. Putin himself will take the lesser post of prime minister, but there's no doubt he's the man in charge. The general assumption is that Putin will return to the presidency when Medvedev's term expires, or sooner should the presidency become vacant before then. (A friendly word of advice for President Medvedev: Get yourself a food-taster, and send a flunky out each morning to start the car.)

Russia's Three Objectives

All this means trouble for us -- at least in the short term. That's because Russia now has three global objectives, and in the coming years it will move fast to achieve them all:

First, Russia wants to position itself not merely as a leading supplier of energy, but as leader of the world's energy-suppliers. Given its own vast reserves of oil, natural gas and coal, Russia today is growing rich as a major energy provider in Europe. But now Russia is reaching out for raw materials beyond its own borders; for example Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, is actively bidding for the rights to develop Nigeria's vast and untapped natural gas reserves. And diplomatically, Moscow is maneuvering in the Mideast and with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to effectively transfer the leadership of OPEC to the Kremlin.

Second, Russia wants to get back control of what it calls the "near-abroad" - those countries that once were part of the Soviet Union and now are independent. This includes Ukraine and Georgia, whose current instabilities are due, in large part, to Moscow's meddling. It includes the Baltic countries and also Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. And down the road it may well include countries like Romania and even Poland. Putin and his Kremlin team probably won't launch a direct military attack. Why should they, if they can gain control of the "near-abroad" nations by working covertly to ensure that Moscow's friends win elections or, when that fails, by covertly undermining freely elected governments. Their objective is a de facto restoration of the old Soviet Union, under the Kremlin's leadership.

Third, Russia wants a global veto. In other words, Russia wants a world in which nothing of consequence will happen -- such as treaties, trade agreements, regional military alliances, or wars -- unless Russia approves. Russia's quest for a global veto reflects the single most striking difference between it and the United States. While we struggle to lead, Russia wishes merely to obstruct. Alas, today there are a lot of countries -- including ones that we Americans like to think of as allies -- whose primary foreign-policy objective is to weaken the US. They are as frightened by our economic productivity and our technological prowess as by our military strength and, whether or not it makes sense, they want to see the US brought low. Russia will maneuver to unify and lead this effort.

With episodes such as Medvedev's rigged election, last year's natural-gas cut-offs to Ukraine and Georgia, the ongoing diplomatic rows with Great Britain over extradition and the work of the British cultural missions, its sale of advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran, its deliberately provocative flyovers by long-range bombers of Western territories and US naval formations -- and the untimely, violent deaths of so many Kremlin critics -- a clear picture of what Russia will be like to deal with in the coming years has already developed: it will be brutal, surly, petulant, and generally a pain in the civilized world's rear-end.

How to Deal with Russia

The question is: What should we do about Russia? And the answer is: We should treat Russia as though it were a condition to be endured, rather than a problem to be solved. Dealing with Russia in the coming years will be like dealing with a chronic bad back. Mostly you ignore it and go about your business despite the occasional flare-up; sometimes the pain becomes so intense you've got to gulp down a couple of pills, or a shot of whiskey, and then lie down until the pain subsides; and over time you learn that there are some activities which -- no matter how tempting -- you really must avoid.

Simply put, we should do whatever we think is in our country's best interests and pay as little attention to Russia as possible. Of course, Russia will always be there -- rather like a bad back. This means that everything we try to accomplish -- stabilizing the Mideast, deploying a missile-defense shield, assuring the flow of energy to consumers worldwide and all the rest -- will he harder, take longer, and cost more. Too bad for us, and for the civilized world, but that's just the way it's going to be in the years that lie ahead.

It sounds odd to say this, but a sense of humor will help enormously. That's because Putin's Russia, unlike the old Soviet Union, is thin-skinned and simply cannot stand to be ridiculed. For instance, a few months ago the Russians sent a submarine below the North Pole, dropped a Russian flag to the ocean floor -- and then declared that by doing so they had established sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean and its vast mineral wealth. Then some genius pointed out that if planting a flag conveys sovereignty -- the US owns the moon. We haven't heard a word since from the Kremlin about its claims to the Arctic.

Unfortunately, it won't always be possible to determine in advance just which US policies and initiatives are going to cause minor flare-ups, and which are going to cause excruciating pain. This will be a trial-and-error sort of process in which experience, common sense and good judgment will be not merely helpful, but necessary. (For instance, let us not be too surprised if our support for an independent Kosovo, over Russia's strenuous objections, turns out to ignite a more serious conflagration than we're expecting; it was Russia's total and inflexible support for Serbia in 1914 that started World War I.)

Our efforts to keep Iran's mullahs from getting their hands on nuclear weapons will likely bring us into serous conflict with Russia, and it will take all the fortitude and skill our next President can muster to keep this conflict diplomatic rather than military. But in the years to come the real focus of our trouble with Russia will be -- as usual -- western Europe. And -- as usual -- the Europeans won't be helpful to us. Today they are as frightened by a cut-off of Russian energy supplies as they used to be by a Soviet missile attack. As the continent's economic power wanes, and as its demographic problems mount, Europe wishes merely to be affluently comfortable as it continues its descent into history. Our so-called allies will always take the path of least resistance, and we can safely assume that their fear of Russia, and their lust for money, will exceed their courage to face down Russia or to side with us to keep Western civilization moving forward.

Indeed, this is already happening. As the dollar slides down against the Euro, American tourism is dropping fast and so are American purchases of European products. Today the European hospitality and luxury-goods industries are actively re-orienting their marketing campaigns from American tourists and consumers to Russia's emerging, energy-enriched middle class. (You can see the impact of this re-orientation as you pass through the airports in London, Paris and Rome. You are fairly engulfed by Russian tourists and shoppers -- in their designer clothes, with their Gucci luggage and their gold Rolex watches, and loaded with purchases from Europe's swishiest shops -- as they curse at you and muscle their way past you to the front of the security line. And the Russian men are even nastier.)

The Cold War Won't Return

Although our relations with Russia won't be pleasant -- to say the least -- there isn't going to be a second Cold War. Despite booming energy revenues that are now spreading wealth throughout much of Russian society, the country is dying. Literally. Today the average life span of a Russian male is under 58 years of age; that puts Russia in the Haiti-Bangladesh category, and nowhere near the modern-industrial-world level. Moreover, because the birth rate in Russia is just 1.3 (the replacement level is 2.1) today the number of deaths in Russia vastly exceeds the number of births. Indeed, today in Russia the number of abortions exceeds the number of births. The country's population is dropping fast, from about 143 million now to about 110 million in 2050.

Russia covers nearly one-sixth of the earth's land surface. There simply won't be enough working-age Russians to keep things going and to support the country's huge aging population. Even now -- and with very little publicity -- just like the countries in western Europe Russia is relying heavily on imported workers to keep the place going. For example, several million Kazakhs and Uzbeks are now doing the menial but vital jobs in Russia that other Moslems are doing today in, say, France, Italy and Germany. More importantly, in the coming decades there won't be a sufficient number of young Russian males to sustain the kind of army Russia will require to defend its far-flung borders.

Finally, Russia seems once again to have an chosen economic model that just isn't compatible with achieving and sustaining global power. In effect, Russia wants to become a sort of snowy Saudi Arabia in the sense that it will rely for its wealth on energy exports, rather than on the entrepreneurial talents and technical prowess of its people. And Russia's approach to industrial modernization cannot possibly deliver the kind of long-term productivity gains that drive economic success in today's fast-moving, technology-driven world. For example, the giant Russian automaker GAZ just purchased an entire factory from Daimler-Chrysler that is already 15 years' obsolete. Russian productivity inevitably will fall further and further behind US productivity, which means that despite its energy revenues Russia won't be able to sustain the kind of decades-long, high-tech military competition that a second Cold War would require. And if the US and its allies ever get serious about developing alternate energy sources Russia -- like Saudi Arabia -- will be finished.

While the Putin regime means short-term trouble for us, it also means that another long-term tragedy is looming for the Russian people. Once again, they are living in a police state. Even now, the Kremlin is busily re-building the dreaded Gulag and packing it with Russians whose only crime has been to oppose Putin or to speak out publicly against the dictatorship he and his cronies are tightening every day. And If you're wondering why Russia has squandered the historic opportunity it had to join the civilized world when the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991, the answer is depressingly simple: Countries are like people; some learn from their mistakes and move on, while others keep making the same mistake over and over again.

Genius in the Genome

The only good thing to emerge from Russia's bleak future will come from the humor, courage, and astounding genius that lie deep within the Russian genome, and that only adversity brings to the surface. Russia's next generation of dissidents will give the world yet another collection of poems and novels that will become among the twenty-first century's greatest works of literature. With a bit of luck, we may even get another bunch of those marvelous Russian jokes in which the individual is always defeated by the boundless, pitiless stupidity of the State.

The patriotic young lieutenant joined the KGB to protect the Motherland from its enemies. But he's having his doubts. Could all these people he's been arresting, torturing, sending to the Gulag and shooting really be foreign spies?

Unknown to the lieutenant, he's being carefully watched by the KGB Commissar in charge of his unit. The wise and experienced Commissar understands that his lieutenant is young and idealistic -- just as he once was. Indeed, the Commissar himself sometimes thinks the regime goes too far. But he has long since learned not to question his Kremlin masters, and instead to devote his energies to rooting out the State's enemies wherever they may be hiding. One afternoon the Commissar invites the young lieutenant for a drink after work.

Now the two officers are sitting in a bar, with their tunics unbuttoned, their ties loosened, drinks in one hand and cigarettes in the other. After a few pleasant moments talking about sports and women, the Commissar leans across the table and speaks very quietly.

"Lieutenant," he says, not unkindly. "I know you're having doubts about our system. At your age, so did I. Sometimes even now I think we go too far. But our enemies are everywhere among us, and to protect our beloved Motherland we must be vigilant and ruthless."

"Thank you for confiding in me, Comrade Commissar," the lieutenant says gratefully. "I want to assure you that my views are precisely the same as yours."

"In that case," the Commissar replies, with a sigh, "I arrest you on a charge of anti-Party deviationism."

Monday, March 3, 2008

Medvedev quick to signal hardline intent

By Neil Buckley and Catherine Belton in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev (Financial Time)

Russia signalled on Monday it was set to continue its hardline approach to opposition and the west under Dmitry Medvedev, its new president, as it cut gas supplies to Ukraine and police detained demonstrators in Moscow.

The moves came just hours after Mr Medvedev, who took 70.2 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s election, said he would take charge of Russian foreign policy after his May 7 inauguration, but pledged to continue the course of his mentor, President Vladimir Putin.

Several hundred members of pro-Kremlin youth groups including Nashi, or “Our Own”, also marched towards the US embassy in Moscow to protest over US foreign policy towards Kosovo and Iraq. The youths carried slogans including “Russia Forward” and “We will stand beside our country”.

Western capitals have seized on Mr Medvedev’s reputation as a comparative liberal among the Russian leadership as providing hope of an improvement in relations, which have sharply cooled under Mr Putin.

But Monday’s actions sent contradictory signals as some western leaders attempted to reach out to the Russian president-elect. Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, congratulated Mr Medvedev on his victory in spite of recent tensions between the two countries, but stopped short of inviting Mr Medvedev to London.

A spokesman for Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said “democratic and constitutional principles were not always complied with” in the election. But officials in her office said Ms Merkel planned to go to Moscow for a few hours on Saturday to meet Mr Medvedev, whom she does not know well.

That meeting, however, will take place against the backdrop of the second energy standoff between Russia and Ukraine since 2006, when gas supplies to Europe were dented during a price dispute. Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly that Mr Medvedev still chairs, cut gas deliveries because of unpaid bills.

Sergei Kupriyanov, a Gazprom spokesman, insisted shipments to Europe would not be affected, but said Ukraine had failed to pay $600m (€395m, £302m) for 1.9bn cubic metres of gas received this year. He said Gazprom was a reliable supplier “but we cannot and should not supply gas without payment”.

While officials and some analysts attempted to portray the move as purely about money, critics suggested its timing sent a message that little had changed in Russia as a result of the presidential campaign.

So, too, did a swoop by hundreds of riot police on dozens of opposition protesters attempting to hold a rally that had not been sanctioned by the authorities. Nikita Belykh, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, was among up to 50 people eyewitnesses said they saw being detained.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent member of Russia’s parliament who lost his seat because of rule changes last year, said talk of a possible “thaw” under Mr Medvedev was misleading.

“This is one team, it’s a very close team,” he said. “I want to remind you that Medvedev has been in senior posts in Russia for the last eight years and took part in all the major decisions.”

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Medvedev Wins; Vows to uphold Putin's legacy

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's next president Dmitry Medvedev pledged to uphold Vladimir Putin's policies on Monday after winning an election critics said was stage-managed to let the outgoing Kremlin leader keep his grip on power.

Displaying the double act that will be at the helm in Russia, Medvedev's first public appearance after the result became clear was to stand side by side with his mentor Putin on stage at a Red Square concert to thank his supporters.

Medvedev, who will be the youngest Russian leader since Tsar Nicholas II when he is sworn in on May 7, has asked former KGB spy Putin to be his prime minister. Putin, 55, was prevented by term limits from running for re-election.

But it is still not clear which of the two would really be in charge of the vast, nuclear-armed country as their power-sharing arrangement is unusual for a nation used to a single, strong leader.

Many Russians are enjoying the benefits of the biggest economic boom in a generation -- fuelled largely by oil exports -- and they see Medvedev as the natural heir to Putin and the best chance of hanging on to their new-found prosperity.

Kremlin opponents called Sunday's election a one-sided farce after near-complete results showed Medvedev had won just under 70 percent of the vote, even though he did not take part in a single campaign debate.

"This is a secret service KGB operation to transfer power from one person to another," former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was disqualified from the ballot, told Reuters.

Medvedev said his presidency would be a "direct continuation" of Putin's eight years in office -- a period marked by a single-minded concentration of power in the Kremlin and a willingness to stand up to the West on foreign policy.

But the 42-year-old former law professor who has spent most of his working life in Putin's shadow made clear he would not let his powerful prime minister encroach on his authority.

"The president's main office is in the Kremlin. The prime minister's permanent location is the White House (government headquarters)," he told reporters at his campaign headquarters.


Medvedev signaled Russia under his presidency would not abandon its tough positions on issues such as Kosovo and Washington's plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe that have put Moscow at odds with the West.

"We should pursue independent foreign policies, the ones we had in the past eight years, with the main goal of protecting our national interests on all fronts by all possible means, but of course sticking to ... legal rules," Medvedev said.

In a further sign Russia was not softening its assertive foreign policy, state-controlled gas giant Gazprom was preparing to reduce supplies to pro-Western neighbor Ukraine at 0700 GMT on Monday over a debt dispute.

Kremlin officials said the fact the election was one-sided did not mean it was unfair. Election chiefs said they knew of no violations that would put the result in doubt.

Western observers monitoring the vote were expected to give an unflattering verdict later on Monday. They have already called the contest unfair because of the blanket television coverage enjoyed by Medvedev.

Civil society groups said millions of public sector workers were coerced into voting for Medvedev in Sunday's election, some on pain of losing their jobs.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Russia's election "marks a milestone in that country's retreat from democracy ... The Russian people have been denied the opportunity to choose their leaders".

But the criticism from abroad and the small band of Kremlin opponents at home were out of step with the views held by most Russian voters.

"Russia is going through a renaissance and I want the country to continue along this path," said Ismail Uzhakhov, 53, head of a collective farm in the southern Russian region of Ingushetia.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Vladimir Putin's poodle may yet bite

By Con Coughlin

No one is looking forward to Dmitry Medvedev's decisive victory in this weekend's Russian presidential election more than the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin: the would-be president still uses the formal 'vy' to address his boss. Ever since Mr Putin realised that not even such an autocratic ruler as himself could tamper with the constitution to secure a third term, he has been scratching around for ways to maintain his stranglehold over the Kremlin's levers of power - while still maintaining the pretence that Russia is now a truly democratic country.

By arranging for his St Petersburg protégé to become Russia's next president, Mr Putin believes he has found the perfect solution. Mr Medvedev will succeed him as president in name only, while Mr Putin, who officially will take up the lesser role of prime minister, will continue to run the country from behind the scenes.

Or at least that's the theory. But there is another school of thought that suggests it would be wrong to underestimate Mr Medvedev's desire to be his own man.

With an opinion poll rating of 79 per cent, Mr Medvedev can claim that he genuinely merits his elevation to one of the world's most powerful positions. That would, of course, overlook the fact that Mr Putin has effectively emasculated all the other serious rivals and, by his ruthless suppression of independent media channels, has succeeded in brainwashing the Russian public into believing that Mr Medvedev is the best candidate for the job.

advertisementBut even though Mr Putin's motives in choosing Mr Medvedev can hardly be described as altruistic, he could still be proved right about the qualities of his anointed successor.

Mr Medvedev might be derided - certainly within Western diplomatic circles - for being Mr Putin's lap-dog, but he has notched up a number of significant achievements of his own, not least of which is the transformation of Gazprom.

Mr Medvedev turned a Soviet-era industrial basket case that made $670 million in 1998 into one of the world's biggest industrial concerns, with profits reaching $25 billion last year. Gazprom is far more than a mere energy provider: it is a crucial political resource that has financed Mr Putin's dream of restoring Russia's international prestige.

And it has also been used to punish former Soviet states that dare to defy the Kremlin's will, such as Ukraine and Georgia, which suddenly found their energy supplies cut off in 2006 when they provoked Mr Putin's ire.

Mr Medvedev's commitment to both the cause of resurgent Russian nationalism and the continued development of Gazprom's business potential were much in evidence in the Serbian capital Belgrade this week, when he met the hardline Serb nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to sign a deal that will make Russia the main energy provider for Serbia.

What should have been a straightforward business arrangement became a highly significant political gesture, as Mr Medvedev's presence in Belgrade was seen as a welcome gesture of support by Moscow to the beleaguered Serbs after their violent protests against Kosovo's declaration of independence only served to increase their international isolation.

But while Mr Medvedev undoubtedly has the brains for the job, the big question is whether he has the personality and strength of character to lead a vast and complex nation like Russia - while at the same time keeping his uppity prime minister in his place.

Even though Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin go back more than two decades, the two men are like chalk and cheese when it comes to backgrounds and personalities. While Mr Putin is as proud of his working-class roots as he is of his physical prowess - stripping to the waist to show off his impressive physique during a fishing trip last summer - Mr Medvedev's background is altogether more genteel.

Born in 1965 in what was then Leningrad, the young Medvedev was raised by two university professors who were active members of what passed for the intelligentsia. Yulia, his mother, taught Russian literature, while his father was a physics professor.

As a schoolboy, he dreamt of becoming a lawyer, although he also developed an interest in "decadent" Western culture. He took part-time jobs as a construction worker and cleaner to earn money to buy jeans and foreign records, and he was particularly keen on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He once lamented the fact that his parents did not have enough money to buy a copy of The Wall on the black market.

His interest in politics developed during the glasnost era of the 1980s when it was clear the Soviet Union's days were numbered. As a law student he actively campaigned for the election of candidates who promoted free market economics, a heretical ideology in Soviet Russia.

And when a candidate whom Medvedev had supported became mayor of St Petersburg, as the city once more became known after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he found himself working in the mayor's office on reconstruction projects. It was while working for the city that he met Mr Putin, a recently decommissioned lieutenant-colonel in the KGB.

From the outset Mr Putin, who was a good decade older, was the more dominant figure, a dynamic in the relationship between the two men that has lasted to this day, with Mr Medvedev still using the formal "vy" to address his boss.

Whether this attitude survives once Mr Medvedev takes over as president of Russia on Sunday is another matter. When Mr Putin became president eight years ago his detractors said he had only got the job because he had made himself indispensable to Boris Yeltsin. It was only after Mr Putin had taken up residence at the Kremlin that he began to show his true colours, and showed himself to be an autocratic Russian nationalist.

In private, Mr Medvedev is said to be more far more liberal, and committed to the rule of law, than Mr Putin, and does not share Mr Putin's boundless enthusiasm for confronting the West at every opportunity.

Perhaps Mr Medvedev will surprise us all after Sunday's election and show that he is his own man, and not Mr Putin's, after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Medvedev on Election/Kosovo

Medvedev Makes Sole Appeal Ahead of Vote

By Vladimir Isachenkov
The Associated Press
Dmitry Medvedev pledged Wednesday to maintain President Vladimir Putin's course and focus on stability as the country counted down the final days to Sunday's presidential election.

Medvedev, who is all but guaranteed to be elected as Putin's successor, also promised to intensify the fight against corruption, cut red tape and encourage small business.

"I will feel obliged to continue the course which has proven its efficiency over the past eight years: the course of President Putin," Medvedev told voters in Nizhny Novgorod.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister openly endorsed by Putin, made similar pledges later in a recorded televised address to the nation set against the backdrop of the Volga River city's snow-covered ancient towers.

"We need political stability, we need to keep improving people's lives, develop the economy, ensure reliable protection of Russia's sovereignty and protect citizens' freedoms," Medvedev said, imitating Putin's forceful manner of speaking.

The address, shown repeatedly on state-run television, looked and sounded strongly like a campaign speech, though it was broadcast as part of newscasts. It was preceded by a nearly eight-minute news report on Medvedev's campaign appearance, and most of that report was taken up by his speech to voters.

Medvedev is expected to win Sunday's vote easily, thanks to Putin's broad popularity and the Kremlin's overwhelming control over the national media and political landscape.

Putin, who accepted Medvedev's offer to become prime minister if Medvedev is elected, has said he would retain a leading role.

"I always have felt comfortable working together with the president," Medvedev said, adding that he and Putin have had "comradelike, productive interaction," since the early 1990s.

Medvedev, who has cultivated an image of a liberal and business-friendly leader, also promised to implement new measures to combat endemic official graft.

"A plan for combating corruption will be approved in a few months, and we will start implementing it," he said.

He pledged to rein in corporate raiders who often use force to seize companies from rightful owners and to streamline state regulations to make life easier for small businesses.

"We have had enough of revolutions, instability and declining living standards; we want to have a break," he said. "We need decades of stable development."

Russia's Medvedev Warns Kosovo Independence Could Trigger Unrest
By VOA News

Dmitri Medvedev looks on during a meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, 27 Feb 2008
The man nearly certain to win the Russian presidency Sunday, Dmitri Medvedev, says Kosovo independence has jeopardized security and stability in the Balkans.

Medvedev, campaigning Wednesday in central Russia, said Western recognition of the February 17 independence declaration by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority has put Europe in what he called a difficult situation.

By comparison, he said the United States, which backs Kosovo independence, is not facing the same political risks as Europe.

Russia, Serbia's strongest ally, has condemned the Kosovo declaration, saying it will spark secessionist movements elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Today, Medvedev promised continued political support for Belgrade.

In other developments, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch is accusing some Serbian ministers of using Kosovo's secession to enflame regional tensions.

In a statement, the organization cited five incidents of violence in the past week, and urged Belgrade to speak with "one voice" against unrest in the region.

In northern Kosovo Wednesday, Serbia's Tanjug news agency says about 100 Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica were continuing to protest the loss of their jobs. Demonstrators are demanding that the two local courts that employed them be returned to Serbian jurisdiction.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Free speech 'shrinking' in Russia

Russian freedom of speech is "shrinking alarmingly" under President Vladimir Putin, says Amnesty International.The murders of outspoken journalists go unsolved, independent media outlets have been shut and police have attacked opposition protesters, said the report.

It also said "arbitrary" laws were curbing the right to express opinion and silencing NGOs deemed to be a threat by the authorities.

The report comes ahead of Russian's presidential elections on 2 March.

The director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen, said: "The space for freedom of speech is shrinking alarmingly in Russia and it's now imperative that the Russian authorities reverse this trend."

She said dissent could be a matter of life or death in the case of outspoken journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in Moscow two years ago.

The 52-page Freedom Limited report warned any opposition demonstrations could suffer heavy clampdowns in the coming days, as Amnesty said had happened in the run-up to past elections.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom President Putin has named his favoured successor, is expected to be elected in this Sunday's poll.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Putin’s Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates His Opponents


NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. Putin’s party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished.

The city’s children, too, were pressed into service. At schools, teachers gave them pamphlets promoting “Putin’s Plan” and told them to lobby their parents. Some were threatened with bad grades if they failed to attend “Children’s Referendums” at polling places, a ploy to ensure that their parents would show up and vote for the ruling party.

Around the same time, volunteers for an opposition party here, the Union of Right Forces, received hundreds of calls at all hours, warning them to stop working for their candidates. Otherwise, you will be hurt, the callers said, along with the rest of your family.

Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes.

While those tactics have been widely recognized, they have been especially heavy-handed at the local level, in far-flung places like Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. On the eve of a presidential election in Russia that was all but fixed in December, when Mr. Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor, Nizhny Novgorod stands as a stark example of how Mr. Putin and his followers have established what is essentially a one-party state.

Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. For most Russians, life is freer now than it was in the old days. Criticism of the Kremlin is tolerated, as long as it is not done in any broadly organized way, and access to the Internet is unfettered. The economy, with its abundance of consumer goods and heady rate of growth, bears little resemblance to the one under Communism.

Still, as was made plain in dozens of interviews with political leaders, officials and residents of Nizhny Novgorod over several weeks, a new autocracy now governs Russia. Behind a facade of democracy lies a centralized authority that has deployed a nationwide cadre of loyalists that is not reluctant to swat down those who challenge the ruling party. Fearing such retribution, many of the people interviewed for this article asked not to be identified.

The government has closed newspapers in St. Petersburg and raided political party offices in Siberia. It was hardly unusual when in Samara, in the nation’s center, organized crime officers charged an opposition campaign official with financial crimes shortly before the December parliamentary elections and froze the party’s bank accounts.

Here in this historic region on the Volga River, Mr. Putin’s allies now control nearly all the offices, and elections have become a formality. And that is just as it should be, they said.

“In my opinion, at a certain stage, like now, it is not only useful, it is even necessary — we are tired of democratic twists and turns,” said the leader of Mr. Putin’s party in Nizhny Novgorod, Sergei G. Nekrasov. “It may sound sacrilegious, but I would propose to suspend all this election business for the time being, at least for managerial positions.”

Mr. Putin, who intends to remain in power by becoming prime minister under Mr. Medvedev, has in recent days declared that Russia has a healthy democracy, a renewed sense of national pride and a prominent role on the world stage. His supporters in Nizhny Novgorod point to his high approval ratings as evidence that his policies work.

A refrain often heard here and across Russia is that the distressing years right after Communism’s collapse left people craving stability and a sturdy economy far more than Western-style democracy. These days, they care little if elections are basically uncontested as long as a strong leader is in charge.

“There is some hope for us now,” said Nina Aksyonova, 68, a Nizhny Novgorod resident, explaining Mr. Putin’s popularity.

Propaganda Onslaught

Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial center with 1.3 million residents, was known as Gorky during the Communist era, when it was closed to foreigners and was home to the dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile here. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it became a hotbed of liberalism, earning international recognition after officials sought to jettison the old sclerotic economic structure and embrace what were considered far-sighted political reforms.

Today, authority flows from the Kremlin to a regional governor appointed by Mr. Putin, who abolished the election of governors in Russia in 2004. The governor, Valery P. Shantsev, was brought in from Moscow and is charged with running the region and ensuring that Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, wins elections. The lines between the government and party have become so blurred that on election day in December, regional election commission members wore large United Russia badges.

Boris Y. Nemtsov became a political star in Russia and the West as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and deputy prime minister in the 1990s, but in recent months he and his opposition party have taken a battering here. Regional and national television stations, controlled by the Kremlin and its surrogates, have repeatedly attacked him — calling him everything from a corrupt bureaucrat to a traitor.

“His career has been accompanied by scandals,” went a typical report on the popular Channel One right before the December elections. “It was the elderly who were the first to feel the results of the work of Nemtsov’s government on their purses. Pensions dropped to the lowest level in all Russia’s history. Boris Nemtsov used to gather the press just to say that he did not care who the pensioners, deprived of money, would vote for. According to the plans of young reformers, only the strongest were supposed to live until the next century.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of propaganda war was being waged on the streets. Russia has relatively conservative attitudes toward homosexuality, and all autumn long Nizhny Novgorod was blanketed with tens of thousands of leaflets saying that Mr. Nemtsov’s liberal, pro-Western opposition party, the Union of Right Forces, ardently favored gay rights and employed canvassers with AIDS. Neither was true.

The leaflets often included the name and phone number of a leader of the party’s regional candidate slate, Andrei Osipenko. Some had condoms attached and announced offers to send supporters to a gay-pride event in Amsterdam.

Intimidation and violence came next. Businesses cut off donations after receiving threats from government officials, said Sergei Veltishchev, an organizer for the Union of Right Forces. Someone obtained the confidential list of party members — the party officials say they suspect that it was the security services — and hundreds of menacing phone calls were made to volunteers, saying they or their families would be hurt if they helped the party.

The party was refused advertising space on everything from billboards to newspapers to television. When Mr. Nemtsov tried to campaign in Nizhny Novgorod in the fall, no one would rent him a hall. In November, the party headquarters were ransacked and spray-painted with profanities and graffiti that called it the “Party of Gays.”

A few weeks before the elections, Mr. Osipenko gave up, renouncing his party at a news conference that was heavily covered on state-controlled television and had the feel of the Stalinist-era public confessions that followed show trials. Other party officials did the same.

The party’s remaining candidates in the region were too fearful to campaign.

“You begin to think: you have a family, you have a business, and you may value this significantly more than a political career,” said Artur Nazarenko, an official with the Union of Right Forces. The party, once a regional power, received only 1 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, both in the Nizhny Novgorod region and nationally.

Other opposition figures in Nizhny Novgorod have been treated just as harshly over the past year. Leaders of a loose coalition called Other Russia have been repeatedly arrested, with some charged with inciting terrorism. When the group held a demonstration here last March, local television stations tried to scare away the public, labeling the event a gathering of either racist skinheads or gay rights advocates.

“Now about the so-called opposition, though there is a big doubt that it exists at all in the country,” an announcer asserted on the Seti NN channel. “They have been acting in violation of the law.”

The mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, Vadim Bulavinov, a United Russia leader, said the opposition had failed because it was poorly organized.

“If an organization is weak because people do not want to work for it or to help it, why should United Russia be blamed for that?” the mayor said. “I think that if the opposition parties want to find out who is guilty, they need to look in the mirror.”

Attacks on the Press

With the opposition suppressed in the months before the December elections, anti-Kremlin activism coalesced around independent newspapers and nonprofit groups, making them another target of the security forces.

In August, police officers broke down the door to the local offices of Novaya Gazeta, an opposition paper that had criticized Governor Shantsev and Mayor Bulavinov. Investigators accused the paper of using unlicensed software and hauled away its computers, shutting down the paper until after the elections.

Prosecutors also closed or prevented the distribution of two other regional newspapers, Leninskaya Smena and Trud, and conducted aggressive inquiries into the finances of several others. “It is a demonstration of force: ‘If you behave wrong, we will punish you,’ ” said Zakhar Prilepin, Novaya Gazeta’s editor in Nizhny Novgorod.

The regional prosecutor, Valery Maksimenko, did not respond to several requests for comment.

On the day of the Novaya Gazeta raid, the police removed computers from the offices of the Foundation to Support Tolerance, a nonprofit group that has been harassed for four years after criticizing the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya.

The authorities seem especially distrustful of the foundation because it receives money from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American nonprofit group financed by the United States government. The Kremlin has blamed Western pro-democracy groups for fomenting popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere in recent years, and vowed that that sort of thing would never happen in Russia.

The Federal Security Service, known by its initials in Russian, F.S.B., has interrogated the tolerance foundation’s workers, family members and friends. Its leaders, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky and Oksana Chelysheva, have received death threats. And as part of a smear campaign, the Volga regional television station showed Russian soldiers being beheaded in Chechnya and said the group had justified such killings.

In October, when the foundation held a memorial for Anna Politkovskaya, an opposition journalist killed in 2006, several foreign human rights advocates were arrested in Nizhny Novgorod. The police again raided the foundation’s offices, and the authorities froze its bank accounts, saying it supported terrorism.

“The ruling elite nowadays has no ideology,” Ms. Chelysheva said. “Their only aim is to obtain as much power as possible, to keep this power, by whatever means, and to profiteer off this power. In this respect, these people, who are so cynical, are much more dangerous than was the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.”

The group had been called the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, and it focused on exposing what it deemed human rights violations in the Russian war against separatists in Chechnya. But it ran afoul of the Kremlin, which deemed its work as little more than collaboration with the enemy.

Prosecutors accused the society of extremism and shut it down after it republished letters from two Chechen separatist leaders. Mr. Dmitriyevsky was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and received a suspended prison sentence.

A Push for Legitimacy

While the Kremlin has succeeded in discrediting and stifling opposition parties, it has nonetheless faced a predicament of its own making. Elections draw little public interest now that they are essentially noncompetitive, and leaders of the governing party fear a low turnout. If relatively few people vote, then Mr. Putin’s claim to a widespread following could be called into question. So the authorities have also focused their energies on getting people to the polls.

Though Mayor Bulavinov and Mr. Nekrasov, the United Russia leader, said residents were not compelled to support the party, numerous interviews in the city and a review of municipal records indicated otherwise. It was clear that strong-arm tactics were common before the December elections in Nizhny Novgorod, and the opposition said it expected them again before the presidential election on March 2.

At the GAZ vehicle factory, known for its Volga sedan, workers were not only ordered to vote and then phone in from the polling place afterward: some had to obtain absentee ballots and fill them out in front of their bosses.

“If you don’t vote for United Russia, it will be very bad,” a worker named Aleksandr recalled, characterizing the pressure on the rank and file.

The coercive voter drive clearly had the desired effect, in the Kremlin’s view at least. After the election, the GAZ president, Nikolai Pugin, who is a senior United Russia leader and a regional lawmaker, announced that nearly 80 percent of his workers had voted, far higher than the city’s overall turnout, 51 percent. The Kremlin rewarded Mr. Pugin by making one of his workers a deputy in the federal Parliament.

Asked this month about the high turnout, Mr. Pugin said in an interview that his workers had voted freely. “People see positive changes and as a result, they express their opinion,” he said.

The public schools also were caught up in the campaign. Parents at some schools were ordered to attend mandatory meetings with representatives of United Russia, and the children were used to drag their parents to the polls.

“It was the same scenario at all the schools,” a teacher said. “And it was all from the city’s leadership. The school directors were given instructions, and they carried them out.”

Regional officials were vigilant about developments at local universities, particularly two of the largest, Lobachevsky State and Volga State. Students said they were warned not to join marches sponsored by the Other Russia coalition. And they said that before the elections, administrators issued a threat: if you do not vote for the ruling party, you will be evicted from your dorms.

“Everyone was frightened, and our group, in full, went and voted, like a line of soldiers marching,” said a Volga State student.

Administrators at both universities said the students’ statements about pressure were false.

Yet it did not stop with the voting.

Shortly after election day, several hundred Lobachevsky students were told that they were being bused to Moscow, but the university would not say why. When they were let off near Red Square, they found themselves among a huge throng of people.

It was only then that they realized that they had become unwilling participants in a rally sponsored by Nashi, a fiercely pro-Kremlin youth group, to celebrate United Russia’s triumph and to congratulate Mr. Putin.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Putin warns West over Kosovo dispute

By MIKE ECKEL, Associated Press Writer

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a sharp warning to the West on Friday about the consequences of recognizing Kosovo's independence, saying the decision would "come back to knock them on the head."

The televised comments, made during an informal meeting of leaders from former Soviet republics, were the strongest by the Kremlin leader since Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders issued their declaration of independence from Russian-allied Serbia.

Earlier in the day, Russia's envoy to NATO warned the alliance against overstepping its mandate in Kosovo and said Moscow might be forced to use "brute military force" to maintain respect on the world scene. Other Russian officials sought to tone down that view, saying the dispute should be resolved peacefully.

Putin used the meeting of presidents from the Commonwealth of Independent States — a loose, Russian-dominated organization of former Soviet states — to lambast Western nations that have recognized Kosovo's independence. Among those are the United States, Britain, Germany and France.

"The Kosovo precedent is a terrifying precedent. It in essence is breaking open the entire system of international relations that have prevailed not just for decades but for centuries. And it without a doubt will bring on itself an entire chain of unforeseen consequences," Putin said.

Governments that have recognized Kosovo "are miscalculating what they are doing," he added. "In the end, this is a stick with two ends and that other end will come back to knock them on the head someday."

Moscow has heatedly protested the Kosovo declaration, which has sparked violent protests by Serbs and international squabbling over whether to recognize the fledgling nation.

Russia's NATO ambassador, Dmitry Rogozin, said the Russian military might get involved if all European Union nations recognized Kosovo as independent without United Nations agreement.

"If the European Union works out a single position or NATO goes beyond its current mandate in Kosovo, these organizations will conflict with the United Nations," Rogozin said in a televised hookup from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

If that happens, Russia "will proceed from the assumption that to be respected, we have to use brute military force," he said, although he later said that Russia was not making plans for any such confrontation.

Rogozin's comments sparked quick reaction. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, called them "highly irresponsible."

"This cynical and ahistorical comment by the Russian ambassador should be repudiated by his own government," Burns said.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's envoy to the European Union, used a more conciliatory tone, saying the Kosovo problem should be resolved exclusively by political means.

Russia has staunchly supported Serbia in opposing Kosovo's secession, and has vowed to block any effort in the United Nations to recognize its independence.

Russia has been joined in its opposition by China and others, including EU member Spain, who worry the Kosovo example might be viewed as a precedent by separatists in other places.

Predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been governed by a U.N. mission and patrolled by NATO peacekeepers since 1999, had been widely expected to declare independence from Serbia after internationally mediated talks on its future fell apart last year.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Russia denounces Kosovo independence

(AP)Russia denounced Kosovo's declaration of independence from its ally Serbia on Sunday and called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Kosovo's parliament approved a declaration of independence from Serbia, backed by the U.S. and European allies but bitterly contested by Serbia and Russia.

The Foreign Ministry said Russia supports Serbia's "just demands to restore the country's territorial integrity" and wants the Security Council to renew efforts to reach a settlement on the issue of Kosovo's status.

Kosovo's independence declaration violates Serbia's sovereignty and the U.N. Charter and threatens "the escalation of tension and ethnic violence in the region, a new conflict in the Balkans," the ministry said in a statement. It warned other nations against "supporting separatism" by recognizing Kosovo.

Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Russia has stressed its opposition to any decision on Kosovo's status that is not accepted by Serbia. It has warned that recognition of Kosovo by the United States and other nations would encourage separatists in the former Soviet Union, across Europe and around the world.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed the ministry statement in comments on state-run Vesti-24 television. He called Kosovo's declaration an "illegitimate act" and said Russia supports what he called Serbia's pledges to struggle in a constructive way to keep its borders intact.

"All possible international mechanisms, first of all the United Nations and its Security Council" would be called upon to address the issue," Peskov said.

He said Russia would closely monitor the response of other countries to the declaration.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kremlin's grip puts Medvedev vision in doubt

By Catherine Belton in Moscow (Financial Times)

Dmitry Medvedev, who is most likely to be Russia's next president, yesterday unveiled a liberal-sounding economic agenda to cut back red tape and clamp down on corruption. However, he offered little sign that he would attempt to carve out a path independent from Vladimir Putin.

"One of the key elements of our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power," Mr Medvedev said in a speech, just two weeks before presidential elections on March 2. As Mr Putin's preferred successor, he is expected to sweep to victory.

Mr Medvedev said he wanted to make freedoms, both economic and personal, the cornerstone of his policies, in which the rule of law and property rights would reign. But economists and politicians warned it was far from clear whether Mr Medvedev would be able to push through any such liberal initiatives when faced with the vested interests of the Kremlin so long as he remained in the shadow of his predecessor.

Mr Putin, who will stay largely in charge of economic policy as prime minister to his protégé, has already upstaged Mr Med-vedev by presenting his own strategy for Russia's development up to 2020 last week.

In his last annual press conference this week before he steps down as president, Mr Putin staked out a powerful role for himself implementing his development plan. He said Mr Medvedev's economic programme, in contrast, would deal only with the next four years and merely "add detail" to his own vision.

"We've tried to do this all before. A great deal was not implemented," said Yevgeny Yasin, rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a co-author of Mr Putin's programme in 2000. "Instead, they carried out completely different tasks which the country could have done without, such as increasing the role of the state, and control over the electoral system and the media."

Mr Yasin said the sudden inflow of oil dollars as prices soared soon after Mr Putin came to power led the Kremlin to ditch most of the plan for liberal and institutional reform that he had helped plot. Instead of cutting back on the number of state officials, under Mr Putin their number had grown, as had corruption, Mr Yasin said.

Mr Medvedev, speaking in Siberia, repeated calls by Mr Putin for a reduction in value added tax and presented a detailed breakdown of ways he wanted to raise living standards via improvements in education and healthcare.

In a rare sign he might pursue a more liberal agenda than Mr Putin, he called for a reduction in the number of state officials on the boards of some of Russia's biggest corporations. "They should be replaced by truly independent directors, which the state would hire to implement its plans," he said.