Foreign Spies Alarm Medvedev

APMedvedev dancing during a meeting with retired agriculture workers in the east Siberian city of Barnaul last week.
Dmitry Medvedev, the likely next president, said in comments published Monday that the British Council and foreign NGOs spy on Russia, echoing accusations that have strained ties between Moscow and the West.

The remarks, made in a six-page interview published in Itogi magazine, were striking because Medvedev has tended to take a less confrontational tone with the West than President Vladimir Putin.

The question-and-answer interview, paid for by Medvedev's campaign, also appeared to be part of an effort to give him a more human face. The interview had echoes of a public relations drive that the Kremlin mounted to introduce Putin to voters before he first took office in 2000.

Medvedev indicated that he backed Russian actions that led the British Council -- an international cultural body funded by the British government -- to suspend operations at its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Moscow said the offices were operating illegally. "If someone allows you in their home, act decently," Medvedev said.

"After all, it's known that state-financed structures like the British Council ... conduct a mass of other activities that are not so widely advertised," he said. "Among other things, they are involved in gathering information and conducting intelligence activity."

Medvedev said he was unaware of any Russian NGOs allowed to "operate freely" in Britain. "Try registering one of our NGOs in London -- a headache is guaranteed," he said.

Medvedev also said Russia could not survive without a strong presidency and sought to counter speculation that he might serve as a figurehead while Putin, whom Medvedev says he will make his prime minister, would continue to rule. "There are not three, four or five centers" of power, he said. "The president governs Russia, and according to the Constitution there can be only one."

Medvedev presented himself as an ordinary person who never imagined that he would become president. He said his ancestors included farm workers, a blacksmith and a hat maker.

He recalled how he had grown up in a 40-square-meter apartment in Kupchino, a blue-collar suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. His father taught at a polytechnic institute and money was tight, he said. Medvedev described how he supplemented his student stipend at the university by working on a building site and as a street cleaner.

Buying his first apartment, a three-room property in a Moscow suburb, was a major event in his life. "I remember feeling unbelievable happiness. It was not comparable to anything else."

He added, "When I moved to Moscow in 1999, I could not imagine that eight years later I would be running for the post of president."

Medvedev said he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 23, a time when religion was still frowned upon by Soviet authorities. "I made the decision myself," he said.

His father died in 2004, after which his mother moved to Moscow to be closer to her son. "At the very least we talk on the telephone every day," he said.

AP, Reuters