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High hopes for soft Medvedev

Rights groups and individuals appeal to Dmitry Medvedev to undo wrongs committed during years of hard-line Putin rule.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has stressed the importance of judicial reform.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has stressed the importance of judicial reform.

MOSCOW // From the widow of a murdered former KGB agent to human rights campaigners and environmental activists, it seems everyone who feels they have been wronged by Russian authorities are waiting for Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president, to show his soft side. Dating back even to the months before he took office in May, an array of organisations and individuals have openly appealed to Mr Medvedev, asking him to rectify what they describe as injustices carried out during the eight-year tenure of his hard-line predecessor and mentor, Vladimir Putin, now the Russian prime minister.

On the day of Mr Medvedev's inauguration, Marina Litvinenko, the widow of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who died of Polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006, urged the new president to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, the man Britain accuses of poisoning Mr Litvinenko and whom Russia has refused to extradite. Several other appeals and open letters to Mr Medvedev ensued in the following weeks, including from the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading Russian human rights organisation, which asked Mr Medvedev to pardon 11 people it considers political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the oil firm Yukos.

Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers even said in a statement last week that they were encouraged by Mr Medvedev's comments at a press conference last month in Berlin with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in which he stressed the importance of reform of Russia's judicial system. Most recently, the publisher of the Russian investigative weekly magazine The New Times this week asked Mr Medvedev to grant Russian citizenship to Natalya Morar, a Moldovan national who has penned hard-hitting pieces on official corruption for the magazine.

Morar, who had studied and worked in Moscow for several years, was turned back in December by Russian border guards, who told her she had been barred from entering the country. Russian officials later revealed she had been formally deemed a threat to national security. "You are a lawyer," Irena Lesnevskaya, publisher of The New Times, wrote in a letter to Mr Medvedev published in this week's issue. "You don't see the absurdity of the officially stated reason for not allowing Natalya Morar into Russia?"

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading Russian sociologist who studies the country's security services and Kremlin politics, said public expectations of liberalisation under Mr Medvedev recall similar sentiments during perestroika in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader. "It seems like there is even more hope now with Medvedev than there was back then, when the idea of liberalisation seemed unthinkable," Ms Kryshtanovskaya said.

There is, however, actually very little basis for Mr Medvedev's reputation as a liberal, other than the fact he does not come from the security services, like much of Mr Putin's inner circle, and a few public statements about his thoughts on democracy, Ms Kryshtanovskaya said. Many people have placed too much stock in an interview he gave last July to Vedomosti, an influential business daily, Ms Kryshtanovskaya said. In the interview, Mr Medvedev said he did not like the term "sovereign democracy", a catchphrase coined by Vladislav Surkov, Mr Putin's chief ideologue, to describe Russia's own particular form of democracy.

Anyone hoping that Mr Medvedev might relax the Kremlin's stranglehold on national politics might be discouraged to read reports of a meeting last month between Mr Surkov, first deputy head of Mr Medvedev's administration, and two pro-Kremlin youth groups: Young Russian and New People. In a joint statement issued a week after the June 19 meeting, the youth groups said Mr Surkov noted the current danger of "pressure from abroad and attempts from certain destructive forces to drive a wedge between" Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin.

In a subsequent statement, Maxim Mishchenko, Young Russia's leader and a deputy in Russia's lower house of parliament, cited an appeal by Amnesty International in May asking Mr Medvedev to ensure the rights of Mr Khodorkovsky and his jailed business partners are respected as an example of "pressure from abroad". Ms Kryshtanovskaya said there were forces within Russia that would like to see a wedge driven between Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin, including powerful members of the security services unhappy with Mr Putin's choice of successor.

Anyone expecting Mr Medvedev to make any drastic moves towards liberalisation soon is likely to be disappointed, Ms Kryshtanovskaya said. "If Medvedev enacts democratic reforms, it would be a tacit acknowledgement of mistakes made under Putin," she said. @Email:cschreck@thenational.ae