June 6, 2008
Medvedev Opts for Soft Sell In Berlin
By Nikolaus von Twickel
While his predecessor is likely to be remembered in Germany for a speech he gave last year in Munich, President Dmitry Medvedev could end up being remembered for the address he made Thursday in Berlin.
In a significant departure from the tone of then-President Vladimir Putin's hawkish address to a security conference in February 2007, Medvedev spoke of a more liberal, open and collaborative Russia to an audience of German political and business leaders.
"One thing is clear: A free market and openness will guarantee to the world the irreversibility of our reforms," Medvedev said during a 30-minute speech that received extensive national television coverage.
He stressed the importance of reforms and economic growth, saying that only a fast-rising middle class "can become the buttress of democratic development."
During comments to reporters after a meeting earlier in the day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Medvedev had taken a more strident tone, warning against outside interference with internal Russian matters.
His afternoon appearance definitely involved more of a soft-sell approach.
"By overthrowing the Soviet system and rejecting its restoration, Russia has laid the foundation for the formation of a state compatible with the rest of Europe," he said, Reuters reported.
"If I may use the language of [John] Le Carre, Russia has returned from the cold," he said, referring to the title of a work by the spy novel writer.
In order to improve Russia's relationship with Europe, Medvedev proposed holding a summit to work on a new European security treaty to be modeled on the Helsinki accords of 1975.
The accords were seen as a positive step at the time in easing Cold War tensions, as well as a diplomatic victory for the Soviet Union, as they confirmed its territorial gains from World War II.
Medvedev's focus, however, was mostly on the domestic front, including comments that the country's media needed greater protection from bureaucrats and officials.
"I absolutely agree that media freedom needs protection," he said. "Some years ago, the media had to be defended against private companies. Today, they need protection against encroachment by various levels of administrative apparatus."
He specifically promised to investigate all attempts to harm or hinder journalists. "All instances related to attempts on the life and health of journalists in our country will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred," Medvedev told a gathering of political and business leaders in Berlin.
The speech and following question-and-answer session also saw Medvedev refer to the need for rule of law in the country.
Legal issues also figured prominently in Medvedev's comments following the two-hour meeting with Merkel, but with a more strident tone.
In a stern warning against outside interference, he said cases like that of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky had no place on the agenda of international talks.
"All criminal procedures must remain matters of national lawmaking," he said, Interfax reported.
Medvedev softened the statement by reiterating his commitment to judicial reform, saying it remained a key priority for the country's future development.
He also made it clear that Moscow would continue its opposition to key Western security policies.
"We are worried about the tendency to narrow mutual understanding over Euro-Atlantic politics," he said. This includes issues like the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, in which Russia unilaterally suspended its participation last year after a number of Western states failed to ratify it, and NATO expansion.
U.S.-led efforts to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance have drawn strong opposition from Moscow.
Medvedev's decision to make Berlin the destination for his first Western visit served the dual purpose of giving a nod to the country's largest trading partner and demonstrating Moscow's multidirectional policy, following his first foreign trip last month to Kazakhstan and China.
The address appeared to find a receptive audience in Berlin's Intercontinental Hotel.
"We have seen a president today who seriously wants to modernize his country," Andreas Schockenhoff, the German government's coordinator for civil-society relations with Russia, said by telephone from Berlin.
Schockenhoff, who is a lawmaker from Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, said the address was met with hearty applause.
"There was real enthusiasm," he said.
There was also careful optimism at home about Medvedev's comments.
Yury Shmidt, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky, said by telephone from St. Petersburg that the statements were grounds for quiet optimism that Medvedev wanted to pursue judicial reform.
"The important thing for us is that they ensure the independence of the courts," he said, adding that this represented the real hope Khodorkovsky would be freed.
Shmidt had discussed the Khodorkovsky case with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last month in St. Petersburg and said he was "very satisfied" that the subject had been broached during Medvedev's meeting with Merkel.
Medvedev held separate talks with Steinmeier on Thursday and also met with German President Horst K hler.
A good portion of the talks with Merkel focused on energy issues, and both leaders agreed to press forward on plans to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
The Nord Stream project has been criticized by Poland and the Baltic states, which say that they are being sidelined. Merkel said no country should be excluded.
Picking up on another thorny business issue, Merkel said Berlin would not hinder Russian investment in its national energy network and that any such questions would be considered in relation to business concerns.
She also reiterated her opposition to an EU-mandated breakup of energy companies in Germany and the rest of the union into separate generation and transmission entities.
German energy companies E.On and RWE have said they are ready for such a move to settle a dispute with the European Commission, which wants to break up utilities to spur competition and force down prices.
The German government has led a fight against energy unbundling.
n A trip to India is in the works for Medvedev, Interfax reported.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed preparations of a trip during a telephone conversation on Thursday, the news agency said.
It was unclear when the visit would take place.
Staff Writer Anna Smolchenko contributed to this story.