President Dmitry Medvedev defended Russian democracy, showing his allegiance to the political system that his predecessor and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built during his eight-year presidency.
“I categorically disagree with those who say that Russia isn’t a democracy and that authoritarian tendencies reign,” Medvedev said at the Global Policy Forum in the Volga River town of Yaroslavl today. “There’s democracy in Russia, albeit young, immature, incomplete and inexperienced.”
The speech to 500 politicians, business leaders and Russia analysts, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Korean President Lee Myung Bak, was an opportunity for Medvedev to grab the spotlight from Putin as Russia gears up for presidential elections in 2012. Neither Putin, 57, nor Medvedev has said whether he intends to run.
Medvedev, 44, has positioned himself as the modernizer in the ruling tandem, supporting the creation of a Russian “Silicon Valley” outside Moscow, attacking corruption and building ties to U.S. President Barack Obama. Putin picked Medvedev as his successor in 2008, after completing two consecutive terms, the constitutional limit.
Russia has no alternative to democracy as a way of fighting “the humiliation and poverty of millions,” Medvedev said today. The speech was interrupted by applause on one occasion, when the president said “democracy begins when a person says of himself: ‘I’m free.’”
“He underscored his democratic convictions and distanced himself slightly from the authoritarian Putin,” said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert from the German Council on Foreign Relations attending the forum. “But in reality, he was highlighting Putin’s idea of a state that provides for order.”
Medvedev, a lawyer by training, echoed Putin’s comments last month that illegal demonstrations must be broken up by force. He also assailed countries that “demagogically” criticize Russia’s political system, without naming them.
While Medvedev said he knew the shortcomings of Russian democracy “better than anyone else,” freedom of speech and assembly must fit within “distinct legal boundaries.”
The Yaroslavl gathering, modeled after the World Economic Forum in Davos, may reinforce Medvedev’s image as a leader who gives speeches and issues decrees.
In contrast, Putin filled TV screens this summer, sitting in the cockpit of a firefighting plane, taking a skin sample from a gray whale and driving a canary yellow Lada for 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) along the Chinese border.
During his own meeting with international Russia experts this week, Putin said it was too early to determine whether he or Medvedev would run in 2012. The premier vowed that neither would do anything that violates the constitution, which doesn’t prohibit three non-consecutive terms.
“Putin’s forum was more democratic than Yaroslavl,” said Rahr, who also attended the meeting with Putin. “Here there weren’t any discussions, and participants who’d traveled from afar felt like extras.”