Nov. 9, 2009 — -- SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with other world leaders in Berlin. Where were you on Nov. 9, 1989?
Dmitry Medvedev: I don't remember, but I still recall very precisely how suddenly our lives changed. I was a teaching assistant at the University of St. Petersburg at the time, and I realized that this development would affect not only the Germans, but all of Europe and, ultimately, also the destiny of our country. The Scorpions' hit "Wind of Change" became an anthem of the times. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the division of the continent, and the fall of the Wall united us again. Some of our hopes from back then have been fulfilled, others have not.
SPIEGEL: The fall of the Wall made former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a respected figure in Germany and throughout the West. How would you judge his historical accomplishments?
Medvedev: As the head of state, it is not my place to pass judgment on my predecessors. Germany and other European countries give Gorbachev credit for the fall of the Iron Curtain. There are differences in opinion about his accomplishments for our country. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred during his term in office. A great many Russians have the feeling that they lost their country back then, and they hold him responsible for this. Whether or not this is justifiable is something for historians to decide.
SPIEGEL: Your predecessor Vladimir Putin was not so reserved in his remarks. He called the collapse of the USSR "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.
Medvedev: He didn't connect this with the name Gorbachev, so in that sense he was as reserved as I am. The collapse shocked everyone who lived in the Soviet Union, regardless of whether they perceived the disintegration of the state as a personal catastrophe or as a consequence of the rule of the Bolsheviks. And it was really very dramatic: A people who had been united for decades -- and in some cases for centuries -- suddenly found itself in different countries again. Contacts with family and relatives were cut off.
SPIEGEL: It was certainly a tragedy, but was it really the greatest?
Medvedev: In my opinion, World War II was no less of a catastrophe. Tens of millions of people were killed. And wasn't the Russian Revolution of 1917 also a catastrophe? It sparked a civil war where friends and relatives shot at each other. The collapse of the Soviet Union certainly ranks among the most dramatic events of the 20th century, but it didn't have such bloody consequences.
SPIEGEL: A few days ago, you pointed out in a video message posted on the Internet that "millions of people died as a result of terror" in the Soviet Union before the war, but 90 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds knew practically nothing about this. What does this say about the state of Russian society, when you, as president, have to remind your citizens that Josef Stalin was a mass murderer?
Medvedev: Every historical figure is revered by some and rejected by others, and this holds true for Stalin as well. In my blog, I clearly defined Stalin's deeds as crimes. Fifty million Russians regularly access the Internet -- over a third of the Russian population. Thousands have responded. Some wrote that the head of state has finally taken a clear stance on the oppression and on Stalin. Others, on the other hand, refused to accept my views. They wrote that our country has Stalin to thank for its developed economy and free social services, and they said that there was virtually no crime under his leadership. They said that today's Russian leaders should first of all try to match those achievements.
SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound very flattering for you.
Medvedev: The government has to be honest and clearly recognize events about which historians are unanimous. As a lawyer I can also tell you that the liquidation of an enormous number of Soviet citizens -- no matter what the pretexts -- was a crime. This also explains why there can be no rehabilitation of the people who were involved.
SPIEGEL: We believe that only once the people have collectively recognized that Stalin was a dictator can there be talk of a mature society.
Medvedev: Ever since perestroika, I and many of my fellow countrymen have taken a critical view of Stalin. This is due to Gorbachev and those politicians who led the country at the time. They had the courage to publish documents that cast a shadow on the government and the Communist Party. There are still older individuals as well as young people with left-wing political views who believe that Stalin's role was completely positive, but they are in the minority.
SPIEGEL: The post-Soviet legacy also includes relations to other former Soviet republics. In accordance with your instructions, there is currently no Russian ambassador in Ukraine, and you are regularly engaged in disputes with Belarus. Why do you constantly try to solve problems with your neighbors with strong-arm tactics?
Medvedev: Are there no problems between EU countries? Germany also has problems with its neighbors. We are therefore no exception.
SPIEGEL: To say that an ambassador will only be sent when another country's president has been toppled -- that's really a pretty unique stance in Europe.
Medvedev: Many things are unique in this world. All of these difficulties have been created by just one man -- the current president of Ukraine. He is guided by anti-Russian ideas, and no compromises can be achieved with him. Everything that he has done over the past four years has been aimed at disrupting bilateral relations. He has breached economic agreements, he tries to rewrite history and he has expelled a number of Russian diplomats from the country. That was an unfriendly act that requires a robust reaction. Presidential elections will soon be held in Ukraine. I sincerely hope that politicians will come to power there who are more pragmatic in their approach to Russia. Then there will be a Russian ambassador in Kiev again.
'We Are Still in the Process of Building a Modern Civil Society'
SPIEGEL: That sounds as if the conflict between Ukraine and Russia could take a dramatic turn.
Medvedev: There is no conflict between our countries. Our peoples are brothers, linked by close relations and solid economic ties. Despite the crisis, we trade goods worth billions of dollars.
SPIEGEL: But are we in for a new round of the annual natural gas war?
Medvedev: A few days ago, Ukraine informed us that it had no funds to pay for our natural gas, despite the fact that, after the conflict in January, we had agreed on the rules of the game and that, if they were in financial difficulties, they would seek loans early enough -- or we would only deliver if Ukraine paid in advance. But there is an election campaign in Kiev, where everyone is trying to politically outsmart everyone else. I wish Ukraine stability and the capacity to act. Then cooperation will be easier for Russia and the EU.
SPIEGEL: The 18 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union actually constitute a relatively short period of time. In a recent article, you described the state of Russian society as being characterized by economic backwardness, deep-seated corruption, the people's unquestioning belief in authority, and a tendency to blame all problems on foreign countries. Perhaps Russia should not always point an accusing finger at others?
Medvedev: We are still in the process of building a modern civil society. Eighteen years ago, we were naïve and many expectations proved to be an illusion. From the political leadership all the way down to local administrations, we are hampered by corruption and a cumbersome bureaucracy. But today we are more mature, we now know better how our country should look and what place it is entitled to.
SPIEGEL: But is Russia really more mature? Your interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, declared in good old Soviet style that he intended to eliminate corruption within a month.
Medvedev: I would hope that the interior minister has a clear idea of how to combat corruption. This certainly cannot be achieved in one month. I also think that he only meant the most grievous offenses in his ministry. Rooting out corruption will keep us busy for years. It also exists elsewhere, but in our country it has taken on particularly repugnant forms. Corruption already existed under the czars and during the Soviet era -- it was just more hidden. Stalin reduced it to a minimum. We have already talked about the means that he used. In 1991, when the political and economic changes began, corruption flourished. Greater freedoms always entail advantages and disadvantages. Civil servants got an opportunity to gain control of cash flows -- they take bribes and personally buy into businesses.
SPIEGEL: How do you intend to effectively combat this scourge?
Medvedev: We have now passed laws that have never existed in the thousand-year history of Russia. We have established a presidential council to combat corruption, and I have called on our civil servants to disclose their income and the income of their family members. They are complying with this now, although they are not particularly pleased.
SPIEGEL: Democracy and the rule of law are also measures of a society's maturity. How far along has your country come in this respect, considering that there were once again quite obvious cases of fraud during the municipal elections in October? And considering all the unsolved murder cases, such as the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya?
Medvedev: You are asking the wrong question. The case of Politkovskaya was thoroughly investigated. I spoke about this with the director of the investigative agency a few days ago.
SPIEGEL: The defendants were acquitted in court.
Medvedev: The investigators are absolutely convinced that their interpretation of events is correct and that they have done everything possible to clear up this crime. The case will go to court again. This is common in criminal proceedings. It does not mean that no investigation took place. The court merely found the arguments of the defense more convincing. That is its right. It is simply not true when you say that the case was not investigated.
SPIEGEL: Let us repeat it once again: There has not been a single final conviction in connection with the many spectacular murders that been committed recently.
Medvedev: Give me other cases. Nullum crimen sine lege, no crime without a law: I can only comment on concrete cases.
SPIEGEL: What about journalist Anastasia Baburova, who was shot and killed in January together with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov on the streets of Moscow? Or human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted in July in Chechnya, and executed the very same day with a number of shots to the head?
Medvedev: Investigations are ongoing in the case of Estemirova. The investigation of the murders of Markelov and Baburova has led to the arrest of two suspects.
SPIEGEL: And the elections in October? In a number of Moscow districts, by the end of the election day, voter turnout had shot up to 90 percent, which is significantly higher than the average for Moscow.
Medvedev: In my view, the elections were conducted in an orderly fashion, which doesn't mean that they were perfect. In Moscow and other cities there were numerous complaints. I have spoken with the heads of the parties. We have agreed that all complaints shall be handled in court. But it is important that all parliamentary parties agree that the final result of the elections accurately reflects, in an overall sense, the balance of power in the country. All the parliamentary groups have suggested that election procedures be improved. I will reflect on this and submit my proposals for improving the electoral system in a message to the nation in the near future.
Trading Gas and Oil is Our Drug
SPIEGEL: That may be encouraging, but we are more concerned about a climate in which officials find it necessary to give election results a helping hand in the first place. We are thinking primarily of the results of the ruling party, United Russia.
Medvedev: It is the leading political force in our country, but it was also dissatisfied with the results on a number of counts. When an official, out of sympathy for a political party, attempts to help it during elections, he is committing a crime, which is punishable according to our penal code. I think that a number of the proceedings currently being launched by the parties will result in administrative or judicial convictions.
SPIEGEL: In a recent article that you wrote entitled "Go, Russia," you spoke of your country's "humiliating" economic "backwardness." Why hasn't Russia managed to overcome its dependency on natural resources in the time since the end of the Soviet Union?
Medvedev: Because people quickly get addicted to drugs. Trading gas and oil is our drug. People can't get enough of it, even when prices are going through the roof. Five years ago, who could have imagined an oil price of $150 a barrel? Trading in natural resources is easy, it leads to the illusion of economic stability. Money flows in -- considerable sums of money. Acute problems can be effectively resolved with it. You don't need any economic reforms; you don't need to deal with diversifying production. We could rid ourselves of this lethargy if we would only learn the right lessons from the crisis.
SPIEGEL: This doesn't appear to be happening, which is precisely why many Russians are scoffing at their president's criticism of the state of the nation. They see too wide a gap between expectations and reality.
Medvedev: I do in fact have the feeling that many are sitting back again and waiting for more mega-profits. This might go well for a while. But making no money available for investments in industry and agriculture is leading our country nowhere. And this despite the fact that the energy sector experiences revolutions at regular intervals and no one knows whether we will need the same quantities of oil and gas in 2050 as we do today.
SPIEGEL: Since your country has not made progress in modernizing the economy, it has been particularly hard hit by the crisis. This is normally blamed on the government. In such situations, former Russian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin always dismissed the prime minister.
Medvedev: Our economy's dependency on natural resources did not arise during Putin's term as president, but rather 40 years ago. It will take a long time to change that. Take a look at a map of Russia, acquaint yourselves with our balance of trade and our export surpluses, take into consideration what social obligations we have -- and then look at how much tax revenue we generate through oil and gas. Then you will understand everything. And, finally, over the past 10 years, the government has not once been dismissed for failing to fulfill its duties.
SPIEGEL: Let's talk about your relationship to Putin. It remains a mystery how Russia's president and its prime minister relate to each other. Are you pursuing a dual strategy to support the current system? Putin appeals to the traditionally minded sectors of society, and you appeal to the liberal minority and the West?
Medvedev: There is certainly no doubt that our tandem works smoothly. And this despite the fact that there had been many predictions that we would soon have a falling-out. Of course we each have our own ideas and styles. Under no circumstances would I want us to eventually resemble the aging Politburo leaders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who always wore exactly the same coats and the same hats when they climbed up the steps of Lenin's Mausoleum, so that it was impossible to tell Leonard Brezhnev from (prominent Politburo member) Mikhail Suslov.
SPIEGEL: Putin's recent comment about the next presidential election greatly astonished many in the West. When asked which of you will stand for election, he said that the two of you would "sit down and reach an agreement" regarding what happens in 2012. Former President Gorbachev was shocked. He said that if an agreement was to be reached with anyone, it would have to be with the electorate. But the people apparently don't play a role any more.
Medvedev: I would recommend that Mr. Gorbachev take a closer look at Putin's words. He merely said that if Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are still attractive to the people as political figures at the time of the next presidential election, then we will sit down and decide which of us will stand for election -- so that we don't impede each other. He did not maintain that we would decide among ourselves who would be the next president. That would of course be ridiculous.
SPIEGEL: In the meantime, there are enough political challenges. On Dec. 5 the START treaty on arms control will expire. US President Barack Obama is already dreaming of a world without nuclear weapons. Did he speak with you about how he wants to achieve this objective?
Medvedev: Who else should do it, if not us? The greatest nuclear potential is currently in the hands of Russia and the US. If we don't address this, there will be no disarmament. We have recently moved at quite a brisk pace, also because the new administration in Washington has made this issue a top priority -- in contrast to its predecessor, which appeared to be totally uninterested in strategic disarmament. Now we have every opportunity to agree on lower thresholds and define monitoring measures. At the end of the year, we could sign a legally binding document.
Our Values are the Same as Yours
SPIEGEL: The ground-breaking role of Moscow and Washington won't be enough.
Medvedev: Correct, other nuclear powers show no signs of such an attitude. Even our close European partners don't share this attitude -- you can imagine who I mean.
SPIEGEL: This could only be France and the UK.
Medvedev: Emerging nuclear powers show even less understanding, particularly those that illegally attempt to acquire nuclear technologies. And then there are countries that won't admit that they have nuclear weapons, but won't deny it, either. We have to think of ways that we can convince everyone to renounce nuclear weapons.
SPIEGEL: You are familiar with the West's fears of a nuclear-armed Iran. How will Russia act in this case? To what extent do you intend to accommodate Tehran with arms deliveries and the pursuit of its nuclear energy program?
Medvedev: Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- there is no objection to that. The country must only respect the applicable regulations; it cannot attempt to conceal any facilities. The discovery of the new plant at Qom is alarming. It is also surprising that this information has only now been made public. Should the negotiations on enriching Iran's uranium for peaceful purposes prove successful, we would be happy to take part in this program.
SPIEGEL: And if not?
Medvedev: Theoretically, all options would still be on the table. I have spoken with Obama in New York about this. I don't want it all to end with sanctions. But if things don't move forward, such a scenario cannot be ruled out.
SPIEGEL: What about the Russian arms deliveries?
Medvedev: We will only deliver arms that serve defensive purposes, no offensive weapons.
SPIEGEL: Do you see a danger that the West in Afghanistan could suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, which, after nine years of war and 15,000 military casualties, withdrew its troops from the Hindu Kush in 1989?
Medvedev: Yes, I do. If the Western alliance cannot help Afghanistan to establish a functioning state, there will never be stability, no matter how many foreign troops are dispatched there. The fact that Hamid Karzai has now been recognized as the elected president creates additional stability. I am not talking about the course of events during the election, partly because, following the discussion of our electoral system, I don't want to criticize any other country. But I cannot let this pass without one comment. Our American colleagues have hailed elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as a triumph of democracy. If that is the case, then I ask that they acknowledge the elections in Russia accordingly.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, at the beginning of this interview you said that, since the fall of the Wall, many of your hopes and those of your fellow countrymen have been fulfilled, others have not. Which ones were you referring to?
Medvedev: I have already mentioned the positive things. But it has not been possible to redefine Russia's place in Europe. After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory. By contrast, we would like to see a new European security order.
SPIEGEL: Although no one really knows exactly what you mean by this.
Medvedev: It is about creating a new platform where NATO and non-NATO members can debate their most pressing problems. I don't want this to be a counterweight to NATO. But we need a universal mechanism to resolve differences of opinion within Europe. The conflict with Georgia showed how fragile our security is. This was a European conflict.
SPIEGEL: Today Europe is first and foremost a community of values, with democracy and human rights at the top of the list. Russia's future role in Europe also depends on how important these values are in your country.
Medvedev: Our values are the same as yours. I don't see any major differences in terms of freedom and human rights, especially in comparison to the new EU member states. When it comes to political culture and economic development, they are not one iota better -- but they are small, and they talk about how many threats they have to live with …
SPIEGEL: ... you are referring now to Poland and the Baltic republics.
Medvedev: The difference between them and Russia is that we are big, very big, and that we possess nuclear weapons. It is totally wrong to say: "Here is the united Europe, where democracy has already been achieved, and there is the ominous, uneducated Russia, which we cannot yet allow into Europe."
SPIEGEL: That sounds very bitter.
Medvedev: Is Russia the only country asking for investments? You are the ones who wanted -- or want -- to work with us on Opel, the Wadan shipyards and other projects. This means that our business agendas are actually the same, and our economies are highly intertwined. So what separates us? Practically nothing, I hope.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo, Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp.