16 April 2009

Tea with the President

Click on photo for original interview (Russian);
go here for a translation.
I saw a few fragmentary references in the mainstream English-language press to a long interview with Dmitri Medvedev, conducted by Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitri Muratov and published in his newspaper yesterday. Immediate assessments seemed to cluster around the following points:
  • Interview contained no substantial news.
  • It's important that Medvedev's first presidential interview went to a newspaper known for being critical of the Kremlin and the ruling party--a deliberate encouragement to so-called liberals.
  • Don't get too encouraged; Medvedev is playing "good cop" to V.V. Putin's "bad cop."
I don't want to join the "what's the subtext" analysis game, either optimistic or cynical. It's sufficient for me to notice that Russians themselves are all over the map on these questions, including those commentators questioned by the Western press.

I'm more interested in why such a long interview got such brief notice from Western reporters. Medvedev said a lot about the values and ideals that motivate him; much of the interview was an extended meditation on the meaning of democracy, surely a crucial topic for our times. Do Western editors assume we all already know what Medvedev thinks, or we don't care, or he's not saying what he really thinks? The Western press publishes a fair amount of material that feeds distrust of Russia; why not publish some firsthand material that helps readers make up their own minds?

Of course, it really might be true that all of Medvedev's assertions are designed to spray idealistic perfume on an essentially authoritarian project, or that his fine words conceal a high-stakes behind-the-scenes struggle among the interests competing for power in today's Russia. The reality is far more complex, but in any case, ideals and values, such as those placed squarely in the public arena by this interview, have a power of their own. And as Medvedev surely realizes, their future betrayal would also have a terrible negative power, reinforcing the cynicism that perpetuates corruption and the "legal nihilism" that he claims to oppose.

For a newspaper editor and a president to have a courteous on-the-record conversation on civil society and judicial independence cannot in itself be a bad thing, whatever we might guess (without actually knowing!) about motives; but cynicism is spiritual poison!

Finally, I appreciated this interview simply as a reminder about how typically Russian it is--a conversation over tea, touching on important ideas, thinkers, even a new film. It's a fascinating glimpse of two men, one of whom is wrestling with countless complex leadership issues, while the other struggles to understand the role of journalism in a time and place where his own co-workers can be killed with apparent impunity.

A few of my favorite moments (my translations; boldface follows Web format of original):
Novaya: On April 15 you will be holding a presidential council on civil society and human rights. ... Do I understand correctly that civil society is more important to you than "official society"?

D. Medvedev: You know, for Russia, "civil society" is a category that we've still not learned to understand completely. Everywhere in the world, civil society is the flip side of the state. The state isn't just a political machine, it is a form of organization in life that is based on state power and relies upon law, whereas civil society is the human dimension of any state. Although it functions within legislative boundaries, still it operates by its own human rules, which by the way aren't always expressed in judicial form. Not long ago, many people didn't understand what we meant when we said "civil society." The state--now that was more or less clear, but what is this thing called "civil society"? The society of citizens? But aren't we like all citizens of our country? But now there's an understanding that civil society is an essential social institution of any state, a feedback institution--an institution of people who don't occupy government posts but participate actively in the life of the country. And it's absolutely essential for the president of the country to have meetings, contacts with the representatives of civil society. I want to point out that these contacts are never simple for any power structure anywhere, because civil society and the representatives of human rights organizations always have a great number of grievances addressed to the state and its leaders. They've got many questions. And sometimes there's a reluctance to answer. But for that very reason these contacts need to be made part of the system, for example in the framework of the council you mentioned. I'm counting on having an interesting conversation with them--probably a tough one. But that's what makes it valuable.

. . .

Tony Halpin of The Times speaks with Russia Today
about the Medvedev/Muratov interview.
Novaya: Dmitri Anatolyevich, ... I'd like to turn to your favorite theme, courts and their independence. I'd like to ask about the "second YUKOS case" [charging Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev with embezzlement and other crimes; trial underway in Moscow]. Is the outcome of this case a foregone conclusion for you? The outcome of the first case, sadly, was obvious to the majority of those following the case. Is the outcome a foregone conclusion this time? Here's what someone wrote to me: Maybe Medvedev at first will make phone calls to judges, including the judge in the YUKOS case, and say: "You're independent, you're independent, I remind you, you're independent, you're independent, you're independent"--putting the controls on "manual" in order to restore judicial culture.

D. Medvedev: I can tell you that any kind of manual control comes with a high cost. I'm not just speaking about courts. We simply must direct our efforts towards ensuring that the machinery of state works reasonably well on its own. In connection with courts and their specific processes, I'll answer briefly. It's possible that for a given person the outcome of one or another case is predictable. It's their freedom, their privilege, as a free analyst, let's say, one without government responsibilities to say: I believe it will turn out this way. And later to say, See, I told you! Or--forgive me, I made a mistake.

But for a public servant, and even more for the president, there is not, and can't be, that kind of freedom to comment.

Predicting a judicial decision, a judicial sentence, by a president is unlawful. It's a sign of a violation of law. For all other independent commentators--it's a personal matter. Government officials or the president, however, cannot and should not get involved in any kind of predicting in any judicial process, including the one you've mentioned.

Novaya: Here you're almost repeating a noteworthy eighteenth-century phrase from Emperor Frederick--I'm quoting from a lecture by M. Mamardashvili. When Frederick wanted to seize a mill from a miller, the miller said to him: "Mr. Emperor, besides you, we have judges in this country." The emperor left the miller in peace and ordered the following inscription to be placed on his residence: "Mr. Emperor, besides you, we have judges in this country." This was a good thing for the miller--he had an emperor, but he also had judges.

D. Medvedev: There are other maxims on this subject. For example: "The whole political system exists for the sole purpose of allowing judges to fulfill their functions without interference." Hume said that.

Novaya: An excellent thought.

. . .

Novaya: I recently saw Andrey Khrzhanovsky's film on [poet Yosif] Brodsky. It had that wonderful phrase, "In Russia, inhumanity is always the easiest thing to organize." In fact, inhumanity is always easier, while justice and freedom are more difficult. I wish you luck on your difficult journey.

Medvedev: Thank you. I can't help but agree--it really is more difficult.

Quakers Uniting in Publications--QUIP--is (are?) meeting this weekend on the Pacific coast, but this evening, participants gathered with local Friends at Newberg Friends Church for an informal meal and conversation time. Among many other things, we heard that QUIP has remodeled its Web site--take a look. Among the great reunions this evening, it was also wonderful to meet someone new to me--Sherryll-Jeanne Harris, the current editor of The Canadian Friend--a publication that I served briefly as guest editor and business manager too many years ago. The evening passed much too quickly, but by now I hope all the participants have safely arrived at Twin Rocks to continue their work together.

Technocrat, meet interrogator: these legal memos from the U.S. Justice Department to the Central Intelligence Agency try to define the line between acceptably abusive and humiliating interrogation, on the one hand, and impermissible torture on the other. In my opinion, the tragic absurdity of the task is reflected in the incredible detail and skewed logic. Really, you can write recipes for combining waterboarding with sleep deprivation?

Part of me wishes I'd not read these memos. There are countries whose interrogators would cheerfully waterboard and hack off fingers without benefit of 46 pages of legal opinion, and I'm glad I'm not from one of those countries. But, honestly--how much better do I feel that we can deliberately, carefully, reason our way through to such cruelty?

I wish Barack Obama would go further and initiate investigations, but in a way I understand why he doesn't--he needs every bit of the loyalty and energy of the executive branch to carry out a program that is already massively different from his predecessor's. But that should not stop the other branches of our tripartite government from weighing in--particularly the Congress, which now finally needs to assert its role in our government's system of mutual accountability.

Other recommended links:

A (rare?) example of national modesty: Norway says "the North Pole is not ours." ~~ Jesus from a Middle Eastern perspective. ~~ The American Way--something in Bob Herbert's passionate op-ed felt like a memorial to my sister Ellen.

Paul Oscher, veteran of Muddy Waters' band, slows it down and asks "What Have I Done?"

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