NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama should focus on shoring up Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s power in relation to his former mentor Vladimir Putin when he visits Moscow in July, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said on Wednesday.
Nemtsov said Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, retained the real power in Russia despite standing down as president last year when he engineered the election of Medvedev.
“Russia is a country of secrets and mysteries,” Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and staunch opponent of Putin, told the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “This is the biggest mystery — who is really the president, who is really the boss.”
Russia and the United States are seeking to narrow differences before Obama and Medvedev meet in Moscow on July 6-8. Both countries have stated their desire to “reset” relations, which had deteriorated to near Cold War levels.
The two sides have been holding talks on finding a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) before it expires on December 5, which would mark a thaw in relations between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.
Nemtsov said the real problem in relations was not the START treaty, or differences over U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield in Europe, or policy toward Iran and North Korea, but rather a fundamental difference in values.
“The problem is absence of confidence,” said Nemtsov, one of the founders of the liberal opposition group Solidarity.
“That’s why to ignore problem of human rights and democracy means to fail ... strategically,” he said, urging Obama to meet with opposition groups and human rights activists in Moscow.
“If the White House agree with Putin’s proposal to talk just with pro-Putin organizations ... it will be a victory of Putin, but not only that — Putin will be sure that Obama is weak.”
Nemtsov said both Medvedev and Obama were “new persons” with an opportunity to make progress, but Medvedev was weak.
“The main problem of Medvedev is how to be the president. That’s why if Obama will show that yes, Russia has a president and his name is Medvedev, it will be very, very nice for everybody,” Nemtsov said.
“I believe if (Medvedev) will finally take power we have a chance to come back to liberalization, to democratization.”
Nemtsov said Putin’s popularity depended on an “invisible contract” with the Russian people — that he would make them rich in return for giving up their political and social rights, but that the current crisis was undermining that contract.
He said the fact that oil-rich Russia’s economy was in crisis despite oil prices of around $70 a barrel showed that Putin’s “corrupt” policies were ripe for change.
“This is a real opportunity for coming back to rules of law and to Russian constitution,” he said. “Of course a lot depends on how the opposition will be energetic... that’s why we are responsible for our future, not Obama.”