Medvedyev meeting with editor of slain reporter, and human rights lawyer both welcomed and scorned

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Publish date: February 3, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

In what many see as significant break in policy with his predecessor nine months after taking office, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev held an unexpected meeting on Thursday with the editor of the fiercely independent Novaya Gazeta, which lost a 25-year-old reporter 12 days ago to an apparent contract killing.

The Soviet Union’s last Premier and Glasnost father Mikhail Gorbachev was also in attendance.

Medvedyev was handed the presidential mantle on May 7th after being hand-picked and run in a tightly orchestrated campaign that all but shut out Russian voters to the notion they may have another choice on election day.

The Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anistasiya Baburova, was gunned down while walking down a street in Moscow with prominent Russian human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was also shot in what is widely believed to be a contract hit orchestrated against the anti-Kremlin jurist.

Markelov had, at the time of the hit,  just delivered a fiery press conference on the recent early release of a former Russian tank commander who in 2003 was convicted of strangling an 18-year-old Chechen woman and sentenced to 10 years.

Gory history for Novaya Gazeta reporters
Baburova represents the fourth reporter the Novaya Gazeta – which has distinguished itself as one of the Kremlin’s sharpest critics – to have died since 2000 under mysterious circumstances.

When the paper’s most Kremlin-rankling reporter, Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down the lobby of her apartment building in 2006, then president Vladimir Putin cold-heartedly scorned her publicly as “insignificant” when commenting on her death.  
The death of Politkovskaya – and Putin’s reaction to it – sparked worldwide outrage.

Medvedyev, according to a telephone interview with Novaya Gazeta’s editor Dmity Muratov and the presidential press service, called the newspaper to request a meeting. In the course of an hour-long discussion on Thursday, Medvedyev reportedly “expressed his deepest sorrow and compassion” over Baburova and Markelov’s death.

Markelov, thought by police interviewed after the brazen daylight shooting on January 16th to have been the primary target of the attack, also had associations with Novaya Gazeta, said Muratov on Monday.

Muratov described Medveyev’s gesture as “absolutely sincere.”

The Russian human rights community had been frustrated that the audacious double assassination had drawn no response from the Kremlin.

Commentators split on how to take Medveyev’s olive branch
Medvedyev’s meeting with the paper, as well as his recall of several government amendments to the Russian criminal code that would have dramatically expanded interpretations of treason and espionage, have caused the Russian press and human rights community to vigorously debate whether Medvedyev’s gestures mean he is departing from the hard lines drawn by his predecessor and current prime minister, Putin.

“It seems there are the outlines of a some kind of standoff between Medvedyev and Putin,” said Nataliya Yevdokimova, chief secretary of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg, in a recent interview with Bellona Web.

“That Medvedyev is following the reaction of the human rights community is encouraging,” she said.

Writing on Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an independent online magazine, crusading investigative journalist Yulia Latynina gave Medvedyev credit for breaking his 10-day silence after the double assassination, noting that, “it is psychologically much simpler to make a mistake than it is to admit it.”

Commentator Andreas Umland wrote in the The Moscow Times that, “Muratov was left with a positive impression of Medvedyev and pleasantly surprised by the president’s knowledge of Russia’s ailments and his ability to listen(…)This meeting could one day be seen as a symbolic and consequential event in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”

Ekho Moskvy radio host and former Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, however, dismissed the meeting said “believers in (Medvedyev’s) liberalism should look past his superficial photo ops and meaningless statements.”

Indeed, much of the human rights community is taking a wait-and-see approach to Medvedyev’s seeming swing in their direction.

Medvedyev’s recall of the amendments to the treason and espionage laws – which would effectively have rendered any expression of dissatisfaction with the government unlawful  – was undertaken at the behest of loud public protest.

But such spotlighted events could be a naked effort to boost Medvedyev’s approval in the climate of a country that is just now learning how to express its opposition to Putin. Hundreds of thousands rallied over the weekend in protest of Russia’s economic crisis, and demonstrators called for Putin’s ouster.

And the liberal veneer Medveyev seems to be cultivating in contrast to his until recently all-powerful prime minister is only skin deep when several other repressive government policies he has elected to leave intact are taken into account.

Along with the amendments Medvedyev’s government sent to the Duma that were not recalled are changes allowing for those suspected of terrorism to be tried without a jury.

Medvedyev has also as recently as last week presided over further erosions of Russian democratic process by sending a bill to the Duma that will allow Kremlin-friendly regional legislatures to remove opposition mayors who were elected by popular vote.

“Independent mayors were the only source of political competition against governors who were loyal to the Kremlin and (Medvedyev and Putin’s) United Russia (political party),” said Ryzhkov.

“Now one of the few remaining checks and balances against the monopoly on executive power in the regions will be removed, “ he said.  

Medveyev thanks God for Novaya Gazeta
At the Thursday meeting at Novaya Gazeta, Medvedev offered his reasoning for keeping 10 days of silence silent after the killings. He told Muratov that, as a Kremlin insider, he knew that any comment he made would be scrutinized and decoded by investigators, and “they might take it as a directive,” Muratov said.

And when Muratov confessed that violence against reporters had prompted him to consider closing the newspaper’s doors, Medvedev’s answer was, “Thank God the newspaper exists,” Muratov said.