As a way to pressure the Kremlin to provide more human rights to Russians, President Obama made a point of giving an interview to the most independent publication in Russia, Novaya Gazeta, which has been highly critical of the Kremlin. Four Novaya Gazet reporters, including Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered in recent years.
The interview seemed to have been a way not only for the president to discuss human rights issues that the US may not currently have the leverage to push, but as a way to build up Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – who also gave Novaya Gazeta a recent interview – and to seemingly dismiss Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Before Medvedev was elected in March 2008, a poll by the Levada Center found that 23 percent believed the incoming president would wield power; 20% though Putin would keep power, even as prime minister. Today, 30% believe Putin is in control, 50% believe Putin and Medvedev share power, and only 11% think Medvedev calls the shots.
"In my view, President Medvedev is a very thoughtful and progressive person,” President Obama said in a recent interview with Russian TV. “I believe he is ¬successfully leading Russia into the 21st century.”
In his interview with Novaya Gazet, President Obama was asked about his support, as a Senator, for a 2005 Senate resolution criticizing the sentencing and imprisonment of former YUKOS Oil managers Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, a resolution that argued that "in investigations that present a threat to authorities, Russian courts become instruments of the Kremlin, and cannot be responsible or independent."
The prosecutions of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been condemned as an effort by Russian officials such as Putin to consolidate their power by persecuting Khodorkovsky, a liberal reformist billionaire.
Asked about the new trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, Mr. Obama said he didn't "know the intimate details of these new proceedings," but suggested "it does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now, years after these two individuals have been in prison and as they become eligible for parole." The president said he "would just affirm my support for President Medvedev’s courageous initiative to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, which of course includes making sure that all those accused of crimes have the right to a fair trial and that the courts are not used for political purposes.
In the interview, which was published today, the President was also asked if "restart"ing the US-Russian relationship would mean less attention paid to Russia’s observation of civil rights and civil liberties, Russian persecution and murders of journalists, "specifically, to [the need to] apprehend and punish those who ordered and committed the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya?"
"Of course not," the president responded, arguing that he believes "that Americans and Russians have a common interest in the development of rule of rule, the strengthening of democracy, and the protection of human rights."
The president then quoted his inaugural address: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
He then also quoted his Cairo speech, saying, "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights."
Said President Obama: "These are ideas embraced by your president and your people." He said that he agreed "with President Medvedev when he said that 'Freedom is better than the absence of freedom.' So, I see no reason why we cannot aspire together to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as part of our 'reset.'"
In his interview with the Associated Press last week, President Obama said ""I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated. I think that Medvedev understands that I think that Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new."
This prompted Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to point out that President Obama had never met Mr. Putin.
"Such a point of view has nothing to do with a true understanding of Putin," Peskov said. "I am convinced that, after the meeting, the president will change his point of view."
Putin himself told reporters that "Russians don't know how to stand so awkwardly with their legs apart. We stand solidly on their own two feet and always look into the future."
The term Putin used for the awkward English translation of "standing awkwardly with their legs apart" comes from the folksy word "vraskoryachku," which one writer in the Moscow Times said "is an inappropriate vocabulary for a prime minister, particularly when it was used publicly to respond to the U.S. president."
After this flap, President Obama said of Prime Minister Putin to Russian TV, “I haven’t met with Prime Minister Putin yet, but it’s obvious that he is a very strong leader of the Russian people,”