SPIEGEL Interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev 'Oil and Gas Is Our Drug'

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during the SPIEGEL interview at his official residence in Moscow: "The fall of the Wall united us again."
Justin Jin

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during the SPIEGEL interview at his official residence in Moscow: "The fall of the Wall united us again."

Part 2: 'We Are Still in the Process of Building a Modern Civil Society'

SPIEGEL: The 18 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union actually constitute a relatively short period of time. In a recent article, you described the state of Russian society as being characterized by economic backwardness, deep-seated corruption, the people's unquestioning belief in authority, and a tendency to blame all problems on foreign countries. Perhaps Russia should not always point an accusing finger at others?

Medvedev: We are still in the process of building a modern civil society. Eighteen years ago, we were naïve and many expectations proved to be an illusion. From the political leadership all the way down to local administrations, we are hampered by corruption and a cumbersome bureaucracy. But today we are more mature, we now know better how our country should look and what place it is entitled to.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Medvedev's Russia

SPIEGEL: But is Russia really more mature? Your interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, declared in good old Soviet style that he intended to eliminate corruption within a month.

Medvedev: I would hope that the interior minister has a clear idea of how to combat corruption. This certainly cannot be achieved in one month. I also think that he only meant the most grievous offenses in his ministry. Rooting out corruption will keep us busy for years. It also exists elsewhere, but in our country it has taken on particularly repugnant forms. Corruption already existed under the czars and during the Soviet era -- it was just more hidden. Stalin reduced it to a minimum. We have already talked about the means that he used. In 1991, when the political and economic changes began, corruption flourished. Greater freedoms always entail advantages and disadvantages. Civil servants got an opportunity to gain control of cash flows -- they take bribes and personally buy into businesses.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to effectively combat this scourge?

Medvedev: We have now passed laws that have never existed in the thousand-year history of Russia. We have established a presidential council to combat corruption, and I have called on our civil servants to disclose their income and the income of their family members. They are complying with this now, although they are not particularly pleased.

SPIEGEL: Democracy and the rule of law are also measures of a society's maturity. How far along has your country come in this respect, considering that there were once again quite obvious cases of fraud during the municipal elections in October? And considering all the unsolved murder cases, such as the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya?

Medvedev: You are asking the wrong question. The case of Politkovskaya was thoroughly investigated. I spoke about this with the director of the investigative agency a few days ago.

SPIEGEL: The defendants were acquitted in court.

Medvedev: The investigators are absolutely convinced that their interpretation of events is correct and that they have done everything possible to clear up this crime. The case will go to court again. This is common in criminal proceedings. It does not mean that no investigation took place. The court merely found the arguments of the defense more convincing. That is its right. It is simply not true when you say that the case was not investigated.

SPIEGEL: Let us repeat it once again: There has not been a single final conviction in connection with the many spectacular murders that been committed recently.

Medvedev: Give me other cases. Nullum crimen sine lege, no crime without a law: I can only comment on concrete cases.

SPIEGEL: What about journalist Anastasia Baburova, who was shot and killed in January together with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov on the streets of Moscow? Or human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted in July in Chechnya, and executed the very same day with a number of shots to the head?

Medvedev: Investigations are ongoing in the case of Estemirova. The investigation of the murders of Markelov and Baburova has led to the arrest of two suspects.

SPIEGEL: And the elections in October? In a number of Moscow districts, by the end of the election day, voter turnout had shot up to 90 percent, which is significantly higher than the average for Moscow.

Medvedev: In my view, the elections were conducted in an orderly fashion, which doesn't mean that they were perfect. In Moscow and other cities there were numerous complaints. I have spoken with the heads of the parties. We have agreed that all complaints shall be handled in court. But it is important that all parliamentary parties agree that the final result of the elections accurately reflects, in an overall sense, the balance of power in the country. All the parliamentary groups have suggested that election procedures be improved. I will reflect on this and submit my proposals for improving the electoral system in a message to the nation in the near future.

SPIEGEL: That may be encouraging, but we are more concerned about a climate in which officials find it necessary to give election results a helping hand in the first place. We are thinking primarily of the results of the ruling party, United Russia.

Medvedev: It is the leading political force in our country, but it was also dissatisfied with the results on a number of counts. When an official, out of sympathy for a political party, attempts to help it during elections, he is committing a crime, which is punishable according to our penal code. I think that a number of the proceedings currently being launched by the parties will result in administrative or judicial convictions.

SPIEGEL: In a recent article that you wrote entitled "Go, Russia," you spoke of your country's "humiliating" economic "backwardness." Why hasn't Russia managed to overcome its dependency on natural resources in the time since the end of the Soviet Union?

Medvedev: Because people quickly get addicted to drugs. Trading gas and oil is our drug. People can't get enough of it, even when prices are going through the roof. Five years ago, who could have imagined an oil price of $150 a barrel? Trading in natural resources is easy, it leads to the illusion of economic stability. Money flows in -- considerable sums of money. Acute problems can be effectively resolved with it. You don't need any economic reforms; you don't need to deal with diversifying production. We could rid ourselves of this lethargy if we would only learn the right lessons from the crisis.

SPIEGEL: This doesn't appear to be happening, which is precisely why many Russians are scoffing at their president's criticism of the state of the nation. They see too wide a gap between expectations and reality.

Medvedev: I do in fact have the feeling that many are sitting back again and waiting for more mega-profits. This might go well for a while. But making no money available for investments in industry and agriculture is leading our country nowhere. And this despite the fact that the energy sector experiences revolutions at regular intervals and no one knows whether we will need the same quantities of oil and gas in 2050 as we do today.

SPIEGEL: Since your country has not made progress in modernizing the economy, it has been particularly hard hit by the crisis. This is normally blamed on the government. In such situations, former Russian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin always dismissed the prime minister.

Medvedev: Our economy's dependency on natural resources did not arise during Putin's term as president, but rather 40 years ago. It will take a long time to change that. Take a look at a map of Russia, acquaint yourselves with our balance of trade and our export surpluses, take into consideration what social obligations we have -- and then look at how much tax revenue we generate through oil and gas. Then you will understand everything. And, finally, over the past 10 years, the government has not once been dismissed for failing to fulfill its duties.


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