MOSCOW President Dmitry Medvedev used an interview with a Russian opposition newspaper published on Wednesday to chide the trade-off between prosperity and freedom which critics say was the hallmark of Vladimir Putin's rule.
The relationship between Russia's two leaders is under scrutiny by investors and diplomats after speculation the allies could be drifting apart as they grapple with a deepening economic crisis.
In an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Medvedev struck a different tone to that of his predecessor, saying Russia did not need to restrict its democracy to ensure stability.
Medvedev rejected the idea that Russians were happy to give up rights in exchange for prosperity, a dominant view in Moscow's ruling circles during the boom years under Putin.
"Stability and a prosperous life cannot in any way be set off against a set of political rights and freedoms," Medvedev said in the interview, his first with a Russian newspaper since being sworn in as president in May 2008.
"The institution of democracy cannot be set off against prosperity," he said.
The Kremlin said Medvedev had given the interview as a gesture of solidarity with the newspaper, which has seen two of its reporters murdered in the past three years.
Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was working at Novaya Gazeta when she was shot dead in 2006. Reporter Anastasia Baburova was murdered in January.
Medvedev said he had chosen the newspaper because it had never "licked up" to anyone.
Wednesday he told human rights groups in the Kremlin that current stringent rules on non-governmental organizations were "not ideal" and suggested the laws could be changed.
"Amid the crisis we should think about building up trust between the government and the civil society," Medvedev said. "Without such trust, it is impossible to overcome the crisis."
DEMOCRACY UNIVERSAL CONCEPT
The choice of Novaya Gazeta, which lampoons officials for corruption and human rights abuses, is likely to fuel speculation about the contrasts between Medvedev and former KGB-spy Putin, now prime minister.
The newspaper, which has a circulation of 267,150, has admonished Putin for crushing freedoms. He never gave it an interview. The newspaper did interview Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who resigned in 1999.
Some analysts have suggested that Medvedev may be starting to assert his authority. Skeptics insist that Putin, Russia's most popular man, remains the arbiter of Russian politics. The Kremlin and government insist there is no discord.
Medvedev, who did not mention Putin in the interview, said Russia did not need to tinker with democracy, which he said was a universal concept.
Putin repeatedly said democracy needed to be adapted to Russian conditions and the Kremlin's political mastermind, First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, has said democracy needed to be "managed" by the authorities.
"I do not think we need to rehabilitate democracy," he said.
A former corporate lawyer, Medvedev refused to predict the outcome of the new trial of fallen Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky on embezzlement and money laundering charges, saying officials should not comment on ongoing legal cases. If convicted, Khodorkovsky faces another 22 years in prison.
(Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov; Editing by Katie Nguyen)