An interview with President Dmitry Medvedev.

Question: Why wouldn’t you abolish election of mayor in Sochi? It will be better than the circus taking place there nowadays. Imitation is always more cynical than outright abolition. Candidate Lebedev was removed from the race for mayor by a court verdict. Candidate Nemtsov complains that he is prevented from running his campaign…

Dmitry Medvedev: Can’t say I know what court removed what candidate from the race. What I know is that it’s a genuine political fight unfolding in Sochi these days. I like it that all sorts of political forces are involved. The way I see it, lots of municipal elections are uniform to the point of boredom. There is practically nobody for voters to choose from and they rapidly lose interest.

On the other hand, people usually cast their votes for the politicians they know and understand rather than for famous but fickle stars. Still, I’m convinced that the more events of note like that, the better for the electoral system and, broader, for democracy.

As for this particular election… well, there are always and there will always be losers and candidates removed from the race. It happens everywhere, and not in Russia alone.

By and large, if I may repeat myself, I believe that the more frequent lively campaigns like that are, the better it is.

Question: You will be meeting with the Presidential Council for civil society advancement soon. Does it mean that you attach more importance to civil society than to the community of “the people in civvies”?

Dmitry Medvedev: Civil society is something we in Russia must learn yet to accept and live with. Civil society is the other side of the state in all of the civilized world. There is more to the state than political machinery alone. It is a form of organization based on the state governance and law. Civil society therefore is its human dimension. Existing within the legal framework set up by the state, civil society abides by its own humanitarian laws. I see beginning of the understanding in Russia that civil society is an integral part of the state… any state. It’s a feedback institution. It is something that unites the socially aware and active people beyond civil service. Meetings and contacts between the president and spokesmen for civil society are therefore an absolute must.

It is only fair to add (I think) that these contacts are never easy for whatever powers-that-be. Civil society, representatives of human rights organizations can always be trusted to have lots of questions to the state and to its officials. Lots of questions the state would have rather left unacknowledged, actually. But that’s precisely what makes systemic nature of these contacts a necessity. Including contacts within the framework of the Presidential Council. I expect an interesting discourse, even though some hard words might be exchanged. I do not mind. That’s what makes this discourse an asset in the first place.

Question: What kind of contacts do you expect with the crisis under way and with living standards deteriorating? The impression meanwhile is that neither civil society nor the state stand a chance of weathering this storm all alone, without dynamic interaction.

Dmitry Medvedev: Social contract is undeniably one of the brightest ideas, one that has been instrumental in development of democratic institutions. The Constitution is this special agreement between the state and its citizenry.

Question: Agreement on what?

Dmitry Medvedev: On how to govern the state. Viewed from this angle, social contract stipulates transfer of some of the powers from individual to the state. Just so that the state will see to individual’s well-being, life, and freedoms. As I see it, however, it is wrong to set stability and prosperity against political rights and freedoms. Or to set a full stomach against democracy, in other words… On the other hand, it is clear, I trust, that when society lacks stability, integral rights and freedoms of individual may be compromised. It happens when elementary income is denied people. When people do not feel safe, when they are denied their pay, when they cannot buy food, when their very lives are in jeopardy…

Question: You suggest a combination of freedom and prosperity then, don’t you?

Dmitry Medvedev: I do.

Question: Society’s most important function these days comes down to control over bureaucracy. Over the services rendered by bureaucracy. How can this control be exerted? All of Russia was amused by income declarations of your subordinates and prime minister’s. The impression is that top officials of the Russian state are paupers with wealthy spouses…

Dmitry Medvedev: Control over bureaucracy, over civil servants is one of fundamental tasks of every state. The state is supposed to control civil servants, and procedures of this control may and actually do differ.

I cannot say we’ve accomplished a lot in this particular sphere. Still, we are probably better off now than we were, say, in the 1990s. Procedures were established and as a man with legal training and mentality, I know that having procedures is very important. Their observance is of paramount importance for law and order in the country, for degree of legal awareness and, for that matter, legal nihilism. So, we have lots of control procedures now.

Legislation pertaining civil service was recently amended. Matter of fact, I’ve been trying to have it done ever since my tenure in the presidential administration. Anyway, we adopted a more or less adequate law on fundamentals of civil service, and work on this whole issue is not over yet. Work on it continues. Anti-corruption legislation was adopted recently. Civil service legislation was amended so that civil servants must declare their income now. Some other innovations were introduced as well.

The way I see it, it is strict abidance by the law that is the high priority now rather than anything else. Observance of the acting legislation is where problems are inevitably encountered. When bureaucracy is asked to control itself… bureaucracy cannot be happy with it, of course. All the same, it is necessary to do everything to have these procedures observed, even though nobody likes to exert self-control or impose restrictions on oneself. Well, that’s the whole difference between civilized society and undeveloped – the former has learned to do it.

As for income declarations, they are but one means of control however important it might be. In any event, I think it’s nice that for the first time in history of Russia all its top state officials declared their income – theirs and their immediate families’ – and released this information.

Someone might ask if publication of these income declarations means that we do control all state officials now. No, it doesn’t and we don’t. But that’s a step in the correct direction.

Question: Have you experienced any negative attitude from the state machinery? In connection with these income declarations, that is? Or has the idea been met with sympathy and understanding?

Dmitry Medvedev: Presidents are spared negative reaction. It goes with the job.

Anyway, I made the decision and issued the order and that is that.

Question: A few words about the Second YUKOS Affair… Do you have an inkling on how it all will end? All of Russia knew well in advance how the first YUKOS Affairs would end.

Dmitry Medvedev: Manual control cannot help being faulty. It’s not even courts I’m talking about now. What I mean is that it is necessary to strive for the state machinery that will function in the mode of reasonable automatism.

As for this particular trial… I’ll be brief. Someone may be convinced that he knows how it will end. For state officials, however, and particularly for presidents there can be no freedom of comments in advance.

For presidents, saying what the verdict might be will constitute a gross violation of the law.

Question: Do you plan to join a political party?

Dmitry Medvedev: As a matter of fact, I was asked this very question at the recent meeting with United Russia functionaries and activists. There is a tradition in Russia that its presidents belong to no political parties. I think it’s correct – in a definite period of development. When our political system is not as advanced as we would like it to be, if you prefer.

It does not mean of course that a president of Russia who is a member of some political party or other is a sheer impossibility and will always remain a sheer impossibility. In foreign countries, presidents do belong to political parties and sometimes even lead them. It is different in Russia, for the time being. When are we going to be ready for a president from a political party? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Question: What do you think of the shape of the electoral system in Russia? Are any reforms needed to ensure genuine political competition?

Dmitry Medvedev: Actually, I think that the electoral legislation and legislation pertaining political parties and public organizations should be amended every now and then. That’s how it has always been in foreign countries. It will be a perfectly normal process in Russia too.

Question: The Internet is one of the few environments where free discourse is still possible. Does it occur to you that the state never stops trying to put it under its control?

Dmitry Medvedev: I see it in a different light. The way I see it, the Internet is actually the best environment for discourse ever invented – and not only in Russia.

All I can say on the subject is what I have already said… and more than once. We should develop normal conditions for development of the Internet in Russia.

As for legal control over the Internet, it ought to be reasonable.

Question: We’ve been talking about elections, control over bureaucracy, and the Internet. Does it mean that President Medvedev is out to rehabilitate democracy in Russia?

Dmitry Medvedev: By and large, I do not think that democracy needs any rehabilitation… It’s just that in Russia, the period of political and economic hardships of the 1990s coincided with abandonment of the previous system and establishment of democracy, so that the two merged in the mentality of lots of the Russians. Hence certain wariness and distrust. Anyway, I believe that it is painful personal experience speaking rather than actual attitude towards democracy as such. I do not think therefore that we have to rehabilitate democracy.