Medvedev Address Hints at Change

APFirst Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gesturing while delivering an address to the Civic Forum gathering at the Manezh Exhibition Hall on Tuesday.
In his first major campaign address, presidential front-runner Dmitry Medvedev pledged Tuesday to stay the current Kremlin course but hinted at a softer stance in several key policy areas and opportunities to mend some fences with the West.

Speaking at a meeting of the Civic Forum, an event organized by the Public Chamber bringing together representatives from the country's nongovernmental organizations, Medvedev praised President Vladimir Putin's policies of the last eight years and pledged continuity and stability.

But the tone and language of his address -- where words like "democracy" and "freedoms" enjoyed a conspicuous place -- differed significantly from those usually embraced by Putin, who has taken an increasingly strident line as the end of his second term draws nearer.

Medvedev's appearance came a day after he was officially registered as a candidate for the March 2 presidential vote. With Putin's endorsement, he is widely expected to win -- the latest nationwide survey by pollster VTsIOM shows Medvedev with the support of more than 60 percent of decided respondents -- so much of the focus has already shifted to whether he will act as an independent president or remain a mere conduit for Putin's orders and policies.

Some of the strongest comments Tuesday from Medvedev, like Putin a lawyer by training, concerned corruption.

"Without exaggeration, Russia is a country of legal nihilism. No European country can boast of such disregard for law," Medvedev said, adding that purchases of pirated CDs and DVDs were just one obvious example.

Corruption exists on a "huge scale" and permeates everything in the country, he added, saying that dealing with the problem should become a national program.

Fighting corruption and stressing the importance of the rule of law have both enjoyed a vogue in Putin's policy pronouncements in the past, although with little to show in the way of results. Even higher on Putin's list of issues as a campaigner were questions like dealing with the conflict in Chechnya and bringing the country's oligarchs to heel. Medvedev has launched his campaign with the issue of corruption and rule of law out front.

As first deputy prime minister and, formerly, Putin's chief of staff, Medvedev has been put in charge of the so-called national programs, aimed at improving conditions in the areas of health care, housing, education and agriculture. Work on the programs has provided him with blanket television coverage.

Medvedev, 42, said a prolonged period of stability was what Russia most needed to foster further development.

"The main thing is to continue calm and stable development," he told the forum. "Decades of stable development are needed, something our country has been deprived of."

He said the government would continue developing the market economy and protecting entrepreneurship and property rights.

If development continues at its current pace, Medvedev said, Russia could expect to become one of the world's five leading economies in the next 10 to 15 years.

Some of the remarks appeared to be borrowed from a policy address delivered by Sergei Ivanov, his one-time rival for Putin's blessing as successor, delivered at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last June. Ivanov said Russia should be a top-five world economy with a competitive edge in aviation, shipbuilding, nanotechnology, space launches and the nuclear sector by 2020.

On Tuesday, Medvedev described economic policy as a "big theme," saying he would return to it at a later date.

On the theme of domestic politics, Medvedev defended reforms to the party system under Putin, saying that before the changes, elections had been a mere "carnival of populist promises." Critics of the current system decry the lack of direct election for regional leaders and the reduction of the State Duma to what they call a "rubber-stamp" parliament for laws produced in the Kremlin.

On foreign policy, Medvedev offered a different, more conciliatory feel than the one to which observers have grown accustomed under Putin.

Russia, he said, may be encountering problems because other countries still don't have a clear understanding of the country's goals.

"Russia will openly and precisely explain its economic and political goals and will find more and more allies in solving acute international problems," he said. Under Putin, Russia's foreign policies alienated a number of countries, critics say, with the most recent brouhaha coming with Britain over the closing of British Council offices here.

Medvedev defended the country's right to active relations with its neighbors in the Commonwealth of Independent States and added that Russia would continue its relations with so-called "problematic" states, in a clear reference to countries like Iran and North Korea.

"The most unproductive move would be to cut off relations and start carpet bombing," Medvedev said.

"Nobody should be in doubt," he said. "In the future, Russia will continue to remain open for dialogue and cooperation with the international community."

The speech was carefully worded and well articulated, if heavier on platitudes than specifics.

"Power is not for itself but for an effective control of the country in the interest of people," he told the forum, adding that social policy should focus on individuals and not just social issues.

Many in the audience welcomed the marked difference in Medvedev's tone from that of Putin, suggesting that it could be a harbinger of changes for the better in at least some areas.

Igor Bunin, of the Center for Political Technologies, said the "intonation" of the address stood in stark contrast to speeches from national leaders in recent years.

"There are somewhat different hues than there had been before," Bunin said on the sidelines of the forum. "It was consistent, logical, unemotional."

He also praised Medvedev's comments aimed at the West, saying the meaning was: "We are not at all your enemies." He added that this could indicate an "independent" streak in the candidate.

Genri Reznik, a high-profile lawyer, struck a similar note.

"Today, I heard a style that pleased me," he said. He added that it was refreshing to listen to a legal mind instead of tough-talking military officials.

Speakers who took the floor ahead of Medvedev focused on, among other issues, the improvements the national projects have brought for people's lives, without directly referring to Medvedev.

An exhibition near the main hall for the gathering featured stands run by various NGOs and public groups, as well as a cardboard sign showing a smiling Medvedev, with the caption: "We are betting on leaders."