Poverty and corruption threaten Russia: Medvedev

MOSCOW Wed Jun 25, 2008 9:08am EDT

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev attends an interview with Reuters in Moscow June 23, 2008. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev attends an interview with Reuters in Moscow June 23, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Grigory Dukor

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Poverty and corruption are the biggest internal threats to Russia's security, President Dmitry Medvedev told Reuters, promising a major push to fight the twin scourges.

Foreign policy would not be swayed by criticism from abroad, the new Russian leader said, but guided by the national interest in line with "freedom, democracy and the right to private property".

In his first interview with Western media since taking power on May 7, Medvedev rated unstable financial markets, terrorism and international crime as universal dangers to be tackled through coordinated action at a European and G8 level.

European Union chiefs arrive in Siberia on Thursday for an EU-Russia summit to open talks on a new partnership agreement between the bloc and its main energy supplier, Russia. The G8 leaders, including Medvedev, meet in Japan next month.

"Threats to Russia's economy are linked to international financial instability, the food crisis and related issues. Other factors are terrorism and international crime," Medvedev said in the interview, conducted at the Kremlin earlier this week.

"We also have specific Russian problems. First of all poverty, which we have not yet defeated. Resolving this problem is the main task for the government. We are going to work hard at this, using all of our economic might."

"The second problem is corruption. Corruption as a systemic challenge, as a threat to national security, as a problem which leads to a lack of faith among citizens in the ability of government to bring order and protect them."

Russia is the world's second biggest oil exporter. Record prices close to $140 a barrel have boosted revenues and the country's two oil windfall funds hold a combined $162 billion.

But rising inflation and widespread poverty mean a huge gap in living standards between spendthrift professionals in major cities and struggling pensioners in far-flung villages.

Endemic corruption -- a senior prosecutor estimated earlier this month that corrupt officials are pocketing $120 billion a year -- is reluctantly accepted as a part of life that has defeated past attempts to rein it in. Moscow's traffic police are feared and loathed in equal measure.

"We need to strengthen the judicial and legal systems and that's something we have already begun," said Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer and the first Russian leader in generations to have worked in the private sector.

The government must put in place institutions and regulations to block corruption and it must educate officials to be guided by the law and not by corrupt instincts, he said.

"This is the most difficult, but it's among measures we are undertaking."

CHANGE OF STYLE

Medvedev is only seven weeks into his presidency of the world's biggest country. A longtime ally of the former President Vladimir Putin, the new leader has repeatedly said he stands for continuity in policy.

The two men first worked together when Putin was deputy head of the mayor's office in St Petersburg during the 1990s. Putin now works alongside Medvedev as prime minister.

In place of Putin's swagger and bluntness, Medvedev's choice of words is considered and his answers carefully framed, reflecting his legal background.

But like his predecessor, Medvedev said he would not be driven off course by foreign criticism of Russian policies.

Russia has locked horns with the West by opposing NATO's eastward expansion, independence for Kosovo and U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe.

"Our foreign policy will not be determined by the volume of criticism but by domestic considerations... Its essence is consistent -- to preserve the national interests of Russia," Medvedev said.

"The defining values are freedom, democracy and the right to private property. And these are the values we will bring to our relations with our international partners. In this sense our foreign policy cannot be characterized as liberal or conservative or anything else. It must be a policy that supports and furthers our national interests. And that is its essence."

Challenged over media freedom in Russia, Medvedev said Russians had "absolutely free" television channels, websites and newspapers and citizens could choose freely what they wanted to watch or read.

"We have no special controls on media which are different from those forms of control which exist in other countries," he said.

Western election observers said Russia's state-owned television channels gave little airtime to opposition figures in the run-up to the March 2 presidential vote.

"Every country has its political losers who complain there is no free media because they aren't on television every day. But that is their problem, not a problem for the media," Medvedev said.

Asked how long his "tandem" style of government with Putin would last, Medvedev replied: "We will work for as long as is needed to achieve the goals which stand before us. Within the framework of the law of course."

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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