Kremlin's new man strikes a different pose

MOSCOW Wed Jun 25, 2008 12:57pm EDT

1 of 5. Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during an interview with Reuters in Moscow June 23, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Grigory Dukor

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev played down differences with his predecessor Vladimir Putin in an interview with Reuters but the contrast in style and tone between the two men was striking.

Medvedev -- a longtime Putin ally -- presented himself as a continuity figure during the presidential election campaign this year and he repeated that mantra in the interview, saying the essence of Putin's policies would not change.

"Politicians are also people and they should also have their own tone and their own style," Medvedev said. "But that does not change the basic tenets of policy."

That said, the new president cloaked the message from Moscow in very different words to those of his predecessor.

During the hour-and-a-half-long conversation, there were none of the harsh attacks on the West which became a Putin trademark in his final years as president.

Instead, choosing his words carefully, the new man in the Kremlin stressed freedom, the rule of law and private property.

Analysts and diplomats in Moscow are divided over Medvedev, a trained lawyer who first met Putin when the two men worked together in the St Petersburg mayor's office in the 1990s. Putin picked him last December as his chosen successor.

Some, including a number of Western ambassadors, see Medvedev as a deliberately more liberal choice, ushering in a new phase of Putin's long-term plan for Russia which will stress freedom, private property and foreign investment.

Others, including Cold War-era hawks, tend to view him with suspicion as an insider molded by his years in the Kremlin who will turn out to be little more than a Putin puppet.

Medvedev's remarks to Reuters, his first interview with a Western media outlet since taking office in May, seemed likely to give more support to the first camp than the second.

Whereas Putin blasted NATO's plans to expand around Russia's borders, accused Washington of starting a new arms race with plans for a missile shield and to cut transport links to ex-Soviet neighbor Georgia, Medvedev mentioned none of these issues.

NATIONAL INTEREST

The essence of Russia's foreign policy, he said, would be to defend the national interest but it would be guided by "freedom, democracy and the right to private property".

Asked about criticism of Russia's foreign policy, Medvedev avoided Putin's oft-laid charges of Western hypocrisy and double standards.

Complaints were normal, he said -- after all, Moscow also had its problems with other nations.

When asked about threats to Russia, he listed common global problems and then named poverty and corruption as specific problems for Russia.

Putin, who grew up in a rough neighborhood where he chased rats down staircases, liked direct, earthy language, jokes and colloquialisms. But Medvedev's middle class upbringing as the child of university professors showed in his considered, lawyerly phrases laced with subordinate clauses.

When speaking about financial matters, Medvedev did not copy Putin's habit of reeling off statistics and specific policy initiatives, preferring to talk in more general terms.

On one point, however, the two men were at one.

When asked about government control over Russian media, Medvedev became more animated and said he "could not agree" with the question.

Russia's television channels, newspapers and websites were "absolutely free", he insisted, adding: "There are not today, have not been in the past and will never be problems of closedness of information in Russia".

That answer could have come straight from Putin.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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