Medvedev Gives First Interview to Opposition Paper

In a move that surprised some Russia-watchers, President Dmitri Medvedev gave his first newspaper interview to the Novaya Gazeta, a paper famous for its investigative journalism and open criticism of authorities.  Medvedev said nothing shocking in the interview, published Wednesday, and many of his answers were general and vague.  But the choice of Novaya Gazeta was a clear distinction from his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who never acknowledged the paper.

Medvedev, who spoke with editor-in-chief Dmitri Muratov, seems intent on cultivating his image as a liberal leader.

The complete interview, below, is republished in English from

April 13, 2009,
Published April 15, 2009

Interview with Novaya Gazeta

NOVAYA GAZETA (EDITOR IN CHIEF DMITRY MURATOV): I wanted to start with general issues, but some are more urgent. It might be better to cancel the election in Sochi rather than to imitate it. Imitation is more cynical than abolition. Candidate Lebedev was barred from the election by a court, and candidate Nemtsov is kept away from campaigning.

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I do not yet know who was expelled and how, but in any case a full-fledged political struggle is taking place in Sochi. It is good that different political forces are participating in it. In my opinion, many municipal elections suffer from monotony, a lack of interesting candidates, and as a result are uninteresting.

It is true that people almost always vote for intelligible politicians rather than popular stars, but the more striking these events are the better it is for our electoral system, for democracy in Russia.

Now regarding the specific circumstances: in every election there will always be candidates who lose, candidates that are taken off the ballot, and this is the case everywhere in the world.

But in general I believe that such public campaigns are good for democracy.

NOVAYA GAZETA: On April 15 you will host the Presidential Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council. I was glad to see that the members list includes intelligent and decent people. Alexander Auzan, Alexey Simonov, Svetlana Sorokina, Elena Panfilova, Igor Yurgens, Irina Yasina, and I have not listed them all. Do I understand that today civil society is more important to you then that of “plainclothes men”?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, civil society is a category that we have not fully absorbed in Russia. Throughout the world civil society is the flip side of the state. The state is not only a political machine, it is also a form of organising life in society, one that is based on state power and relies on the law, while civil society is the human dimension of any state. Though its members are governed by state legislation they often act according to human laws that, incidentally, do not always have a legal form. Still quite recently, many people did not understand the words civil society. A state is more or less clear. But what is civil society? A society of citizens? So we are all citizens of our country. And now there is the understanding that civil society is an integral non-governmental institution in any state. An institution that provides feedback. The organisations of people who do not hold office, but are nevertheless actively involved in the life of their country.

Therefore meetings and contacts between the President and representatives of civil society are indispensable. Let me emphasise: these relations are not easy for any authority, because all members of civil society and representatives of human rights organisations have a huge number of issues to raise with the government and leaders. They have a lot of questions, and these are questions the authorities do not always want to answer. But that is why such contacts must be systematic, including contacts within the framework of the Council you mentioned. I expect that this will be an interesting conversation. It will likely be hard, but therein lies its value.

NOVAYA GAZETA: For a few years now there has been an unspoken contract between state and society (or, more precisely, the majority of society): the state provides a given level of comfort and well-being, and in exchange society remains loyal to the state.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You mean “democracy in exchange for prosperity” or, say, “sausages in exchange for freedom”?

NOVAYA GAZETA: Yes. But now, in the absence of prosperity, what do you think a new contract could be? I will not even say the word thaw, but perhaps the defrosting [Alexander Auzan’s term] of society is pertinent? Since neither society nor the state can deal with the crisis alone, they will have to talk.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: The idea of a social contract is certainly one of the brightest human ideas and has undoubtedly played a very significant role in the development of democratic institutions throughout the world. The origins of Rousseau’s idea are well-known, but if you refer to the modern social contract then I would say that its framework is laid out in our Constitution. The Constitution is a special agreement between on the one hand the state and, on the other, its citizens.

NOVAYA GAZETA: An agreement on what?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: On how to exercise power in the territory of our state, of our country. In this context, the social contract refers to the partial assignment of authority, which by virtue of natural law belongs to the individual, to the state so that the state guarantees individual’s prosperity, life and liberty. But it seems to me that one should never oppose a stable and prosperous life, and a set of political rights and freedoms. You can not oppose democracy and well-being. On the other hand, it is clear that the inalienable rights and freedoms of the individual and citizen may be in jeopardy if society is unstable, if the elementary needs of individuals are not provided for, if people do not feel secure, if they do not receive their wages, if they are unable to buy basic foodstuffs, if their lives are threatened.

Therefore, I see no contradiction in your question to me. It is obvious that the social contract goes back not only to the well-known theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, but also to our Constitution.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Are you suggesting that you can offer Russia both freedom and prosperity?


NOVAYA GAZETA: Today the primary function of society is, of course, to supervise public officials, to oversee the benefits and services that the bureaucracy provides for society. How do you think this control can be implemented? The entire country read the declarations of income and assets of your subordinates and those of the Prime Minister.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Probably everyone enjoyed reading this?

NOVAYA GAZETA: Yes they did. Of course, it is unclear who will verify the authenticity of the declarations. In a few days a powerful community of “poor” husbands with wealthy wives has emerged in Russia…

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, the problem of supervising public officials and civil servants is one of the fundamental tasks of any state. The state must control its officials – officials who are actually serving the state, and of course there is a wide variety of control mechanisms.

We started working on this a long time ago and I cannot say that we have achieved great success. Although if we’re comparing, say, the situation in the 1990s and that of today, I still believe that today is better – at least control mechanisms are associated with legal proceedings. And as a person with a legal way of thinking, I can say that legal procedures are very important. The role played by the rule of law in society at large, individuals’ legal consciousness, and the degree of the very legal nihilism I have referred to more than once all depend on how these procedures are implemented. Therefore the procedures we have now are sufficient.

Some time ago we changed the law on public service. Incidentally, I began working on this when I was still working in the Presidential Executive Office. We passed a very decent, modern law on the fundamental aspects of public service and laws on the various types of public service, and this work continues: there are many new chapters to this story. Just recently we adopted a package of anti-corruption laws and amendments to legislation on public service, including those governing the declaration of income and a number of other fairly important and useful things.

In my opinion, today the main problem is not the absence of regulations on supervision, but rather their full implementation. This is, of course, the most difficult thing, because when the bureaucracy is told to supervise themselves this, of course, does not make them happy and I understand this. But we need to make sure that these procedures are nevertheless respected, despite the fact that nobody likes to limit oneself, nobody likes to restrict oneself within confining limits. A civilized society differs from a less civilized one precisely because it has learned to do this.

With regards to the income declaration, this is only one of the institutions of control, an important but not exclusive one, of course. It is very good that for the first time in the history of the Russian state (this has never happened before: neither under the Tsar, the Soviet government, nor in the recent history), all senior officials must not simply declare – in a tax declaration, for example – their incomes and those of their immediate families, but also make this information available to the public.

This practice should become a habit and should not cause an allergic reaction.

You can, of course, ask me: does the publication of the declarations mean that we have control over all senior officers and other officials? Of course not. But at least it is the first step in the right direction. If a person declares his or her income each year – and for senior officials this is not just a declaration but, I repeat, the publication of these documents – then at least this person should think about the assets acquired and the funds used to do so.

While introducing the above practice, we should of course avoid demeaning human beings. I believe that our bureaucrats are Russian citizens who perform a very valuable mission.

NOVAYA GAZETA: The same as other citizens of Russia?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Exactly the same as all the others.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Just with flashing lights on their cars.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Far from all of them. This is a common misconception. We have several million officials and public servants and the number of those entitled to such features is quite small. So both the income declaration and other forms of supervision establish a certain chain of events with the ultimate goal of compiling the history of a given individual.

NOVAYA GAZETA: The credit history of an official?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: And why not? It is exactly the same person as others. You mentioned wives, for example. Firstly, I believe that any person can determine independently how to create a life for his family. There is nothing wrong with the fact that officials’ wives are engaged in business. The question is whether or not this is transparent, and of course if there is a conflict of interest. If, say, an official is involved in regulating a given sector and his spouse works for a major company in that sector, this is unethical. But if she is involved in any other business there is no problem. And this is the case throughout the world. It is not taboo that officials’ spouses are engaged in business. It is a question of measures and one’s personal culture. And measures such as the publication of income declarations of high-positioned officials and their close relatives should create such a culture.

Maybe not right away.

But I would repeat again that some history has been created, the history of an official and his family history as well.

Incidentally, this can be unpleasant because people do not always want to have others discussing the income of their spouse, but this is part of the public persona of bureaucrats. Each person has a choice. One can stay in business absolutely legally and make money without any publicity, without publishing any such reports, as banking secrecy in Russia, as in any other country, is guaranteed.

Or one may choose another path.

One can become a public servant, an official, but in this case people – especially when thinking about the future and how to structure their careers – must understand that at some point in the future part of their private life must be revealed. This is a conscious choice, but whoever takes it must understand that it is inevitable and it may cause inconvenience to their family.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Were you personally affected by the negative reaction of public officials? Or did they react with understanding to your decision, the decision to publicize the declaration?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Well as you know, the office of President releases me from the obligation to listen to the negative reactions of officials.

I took the decision and everyone must execute it.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Mr President, I would like to leave the so-called people’s judgment, or “vox populi” issue where we discuss declarations of income and credit histories of officials, and switch to your favourite subject, the courts and their independence. I want to ask about the second Yukos case. Can you predict what the outcome of this case will be? For most of those interested in the first case, its outcome was, alas, all too predictable. But can we say the same thing this time? I received the following letter: perhaps, for at least some time, Medvedev will simply call the judges, including the judge of the Yukos case and say: you’re independent, you’re independent, let me remind you that you’re independent, independent, independent! Here is a hands-on way of encouraging the renewal of judicial culture …

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I can assure you that every hands-on management technique comes with important drawbacks. I’m not even talking about the courts here. We just need to try and ensure that the state machine operates with a reasonable degree of consistency. Now, with respect to the court and the specific process. I can answer this very briefly. Maybe for some the outcome of a given case is predictable. This is the freedom, the pleasure of someone who does not have any public duties and is, let us suppose, a free-lance analyst who can say: I think this will happen. And then he can say: see, this is what happened. Or: sorry, I was wrong.

But for a public servant, and even more so for the President, no such freedom exists and they can make no such comment.

For the President, predictability of judicial decisions is illegal, it is a sign that the law is being violated. For all the other unconstrained commentators, this is a personal matter. No legal proceeding, including the one you mentioned, should be predicted by government officials or the President in any manner. This is the way it is and the way it should be.

NOVAYA GAZETA: You have repeated almost exactly the remarkable words of the 18th century Emperor Friedrich (as cited by Merab Mamardashvili). When Friedrich wanted to take the mill away from the miller, the miller told him: “Your Majesty, besides you we have judges in our country…”. So the Emperor left the miller in peace and throughout his residence inscribed the words: “Your Majesty, besides you we have judges in our country…”. The miller was lucky, as apart from to the Emperor there were judges available for him.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: There are other maxims on this subject. For example, as Hume put it, all political systems exist only so that judges can perform their functions independently.

NOVAYA GAZETA: A brilliant idea …

Before moving on to questions of charity, I would like to ask you something. There have been rumours… Are you thinking about becoming a member of one of the parties? Perhaps even the ruling party?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I spoke about this issue recently, at a meeting with United Russia, and said that in our country, we currently have a tradition of a “non-party president”. During a certain historical period, I feel that this is best, because our political system is not yet fully developed. It must develop, and it must become more mature. That does not mean we should simply cross out the idea of a party-aligned president and say that it is not possible in our country. In other countries, people who become presidents are often either members of a party or leaders of political movements. For now, this is not the case in our country. The question is, when will we be ready for it? This is a question of political experience, of political life.

NOVAYA GAZETA: So after some time, reforms need to be made within the electoral system, in order to ensure real party competition?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I think that electoral legislation, legislation on elections, legislation on parties, and legislation on non-governmental organizations – all this legislation is sufficiently flexible. In my view, it can and should be changed every so often. That is what happened and continues to happen in other countries. And in this country, this is an entirely normal process. I would act with much greater care in regard to, for example, changes to civil legislation that determines the property status of our citizens, the proprietary rights in our country, contractual institutions, and inheritance laws, because they are fundamental. The Napoleonic Code was adopted 200 years ago, and it is all right, it is still working, despite the fact that it has quite a few anachronisms. But when any kind of changes are made, they should not put into question the fundamental basics of constitutional order.

NOVAYA GAZETA: A few days ago (I am sure you saw this in the blogs) the Mothers of Beslan group got rightly upset. Guardians and parents who survived the tragedy were asked to pay taxes for the education and living expenses of children attending the Koralovo school [a school created by Mikhail Khodorkovsky for orphans and children who, along with their parents, were victims of terrorist acts]. The government is not spending any money on this project, but wants to collect taxes.

And this is not a unique occurrence. Whenever I, as an individual, put part of my money toward the medical expenses of a sick child, I know that parents will have to pay a 13 percent tax, just as they would on their income.

Those who get this money from us, they have barely raked up a sum needed to pay for medical treatment of their child (there are lots of examples) and then, in tears, have to go and pay the tax.

Perhaps it would make sense to change the laws on philanthropy?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: The laws on philanthropy need improvement. The problem, as usual, is in the details. There are very clear cases of charity, when help is provided for sick children or the elderly. There are less clear cases, when people are tempted to direct money through the appropriate channels to achieve certain business goals.

We must learn (with the help of the law) to separate money that is intended for charity from money that is intended for business.

NOVAYA GAZETA: And we must make it easier for people to do good deeds. For example: you see a picture of a sick child in a newspaper, with the phone number of a mobile telephone operator; you dial it, and your account is credited. The accessibility of philanthropy is absolute. But the telephone companies take an enormous cut for this service, and so it loses its purpose.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: That is a good idea. Everything must be done very quickly, and the accessibility of alms-deed must be equal for the rich and for the poor.

Philanthropy is important on both a large scale (in order to stimulate it, we have passed a law on creating targeted capital foundations) and on a small scale which, by the way, is no less valuable. I have always given this example: for some reason, we may feel ashamed to take 100 roubles out of our pockets to send them to a foundation that helps sick children or supports the university where we studied. Why? Because we have doubts. What is 100 roubles? They’ll think we are mocking them. But for some reason, in other countries, there is no shame in sending a dollar, just one, to your university or to the city council of your home town, because people feel that it is perfectly normal to do so, and that they must somehow help important social initiatives. I also think that it is right to do good deeds regardless of one’s income, donating any sum of money.

By the way, we already have an undertaking of this sort. Sberbank launched an interesting project. They began to issue special bank cards. If you get this kind of card, you agree in advance that a small percent of each of your expenses or purchases will go to charity [this project was undertaken jointly by Sberbank and the Chulpan Khamatova’s “Give Life” Foundation].

NOVAYA GAZETA: Social initiatives are important things, and oftentimes, they do not require large amounts of spending. Along with the Committee of Soliders’ Mothers and a couple of military enlistment offices, we held an experiment: we gave mobile phones to conscripts, so that if anything happened, they could call the public prosecutor’s office, or their mothers or girlfriends. It was reported to us that cases of hazing decreased sharply. For example, they can have a “Soldier” price plan in the beginning, and a “Demobee” price plan by the end of their service…

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: That is a good idea. Crimes committed in the armed forces are dangerous, first and foremost, because of their latency, because only an insignificant percent reaches the military judges and investigators, and even less make it to the court. Whereas modern means of communication do help.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Not so long ago, we printed an article about the town of Maisky. Perhaps you heard this story, it is related to you. In the town of Maisky in Kabardino-Balkar Republic, there was a rumour that Medvedev will visit soon, because Medvedev’s grandmother lives somewhere in the town. And what did the authorities do, when they could not find the grandmother? Just in case, all of the roads in Maisky were paved. Tonnes of trash were taken out, the town square was paved, and street lamps were installed. The people were happy. I think that if we spread rumours about the grandmothers of Medvedev, Surkov, and members of the government in various towns, then perhaps the fear will cause local authorities to get active.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: This is not a bad method… I know what you are talking about. If I remember correctly, long ago, my grandfather worked as a secretary for the district [communist] party committee in Kabardino-Balkar Republic, right around Maisky. Although, that was long ago, over 60 years now, but nevertheless. Perhaps that is how this rumour got started…

NOVAYA GAZETA: The internet is one of the few remaining public platforms for discussion. Do you think about the fact that civil servants constantly try to introduce control over the Web?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: I do not think that is the case. The internet is not merely one of many platforms for discussions; in my view, it is the best discussion platform, not just in our country, but overall, because I cannot think of anything else that is more socially significant, or more actively reaching every household, while simultaneously creating opportunities for direct communication, than the internet.

I have stated my position on the internet many times, and I can say it again: we must create normal conditions for the development of the Web. As a person who is rather deeply immersed in the internet and uses it quite actively every day, I feel that we must have a normal legal foundation for its development in our country – a legal foundation, and an organisational one. Because without organisational support, as I have said recently, the internet in our country will not develop.

Not long ago, I was present at the launch of WiMAX technology [a telecommunication technology for many devices, ranging from computers to mobile phones, ensuring high-speed access to the Web of IEEE 802.16 standard] in Armenia and I was simply jealous of our Armenian friends, because they have a small country, and they covered everything at once – absolutely everything. You can drive through the territory in a car and watch television: thanks to the internet, the signal is delivered at high speed.

We have a different situation. We have an enormous country, and even providing internet to schools required enormous financial resources, great organisational resources, and special government attention. I worked on this personally. It is wonderful that we were nevertheless able to bring internet to all schools, and this way, it has begun to develop in smaller towns and villages which are far from out country’s centre.

As for legal regulation of the internet, it must be reasonable. We do not need to be ahead of everyone in the world, we must think about how to create a legal framework that, on the one hand, will allow the internet to develop, and on the other hand, will block crimes that can be committed using internet technologies. But under no circumstances should the internet be regarded as some sort of potentially dangerous criminal medium in regard to others. The internet is not an absolute evil.

NOVAYA GAZETA: Our newspaper has quoted the words of the wonderful writer and analyst Dmitry Oreshkin: in the USSR, they could not create a computer, because even photocopiers were under the control of the KGB, so they would certainly not allow anyone to have a personal data processing device. But in order to modernise the country, we need a particular, free environment. Today you talked about elections, about control over bureaucracy, about the internet. Does this mean that President Medvedev is going to rehabilitate democracy in Russia?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: You know, I think that democracy as such does not need any kind of rehabilitation. Democracy is both historical and at the same time, supranational. That is why democracy does not require rehabilitation anywhere. There is another issue: at a certain point, the highly difficult political and economic processes of the 1990s became associated with the arrival of the key democratic institutions in our country for many of our fellow citizens, and for them, this was a very difficult time. That is what left a mark on the perception of the term itself, but that is more a matter of personal experience, rather than an attitude toward democracy overall. That is why I do not think that we need to rehabilitate democracy. Democracy was, is, and will be.

NOVAYA GAZETA: A few days ago, I watched Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s film about Joseph Brodsky, and it contained his wonderful phrase: “It is always much easier to organise inhumanity in our country than anything else.” Inhumanity is, indeed, always easier, whereas justice and freedom are always much more difficult. I wish you the best of luck on your difficult path.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV: Thank you. I cannot disagree with this; it truly is more difficult…