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.”

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