Ingrid Burke, Pitt Law '11; and Rick Grubb, Pitt Law '10; attended a University of Pittsburgh speech by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speech during the G-20 summit…
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to the University of Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit to give some remarks of his own on the 50th anniversary of President Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the city. The format was very casual and Medvedev spoke briefly about the timing of his visit, acknolwedging the divide between Khrushchev's ideology and his own. Often, question-and-answer sessions with heads of state are heavily planned, with pre-screened questions and a moderator to avoid any unwanted surprises. Instead, Medvedev began calling on members of the audience directly. Surprisingly, he displayed a willingness to answer any and every question asked.
Russia and International Relations: Rick Grubb
The first question dove directly into matters dealing with relations between Russia and Georgia. Medvedev noted that the two nations share a long, close history with many similar traditions, but that he could not and would not work with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. He repeated his allegations that Georgian aggression was the cause of last year's hostilities, but stated that politicians could not spoil the personal relationships between the two populations. I anticipated that Medvedev would receive some validation of his oft-repeated assertions of Georgian aggression from the EU's report on last summer's conflict.
Mirroring the query about Georgia, Medvedev answered two questions pertaining to Russia's relations with Ukraine and Belarus. He was quick to note that Russia stands in a sisterly relationship with these states, responding to an assertion made by one of the questioners, who stated that Russia is the "big sister". Medvedev patterned his response after his statements on Georgia, speaking about the shared history and close relations of each nation's respective populations. He did distinguish the two situations in one area, however. He attributed the difficulties with Belarus to emotional responses to their own national interests, whereas he believed that in Ukraine the conflict was due to President Yushchenko's failure to build a relationship. Medvedev did mention that he planned on meeting with Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko in the near future. In contrast to this policy of engagement, Medvedev mentioned no plans for Ukraine beyond what some have called his interventionist letter to President Yushchenko and a video of his opinions posted on his blog.
Judicial Reform in Russia: Ingrid Burke
I had the opportunity to personally ask President Medvedev about his plans for judicial reform and his thoughts on the current state of Russia's justice system. He was glad to discuss the issue, which has been very important to him due to his legal training and his work in the field. He started by explaining that the Russian Court is seriously outdated and in need of modernization in order to restore the faith of Russian and international critics regarding the respectability of the Court. As it stands, people are highly reluctant to turn to the courts in Russia in order to resolve their problems. They will turn to any number of other institutions for help, but the courts are so devoid of respect that many people refuse to believe that any judicial proceeding will end with favorable results. In order to address this problem, he has recently implemented a program to promote judicial independence. Currently, judges are too easily influenced by external sources, whether in the form of local or federal government actors or agencies, or by businesses and other wealthy individuals. Once external influences are removed from the equation, Medvedev feels confident that faith in the justice system will be restored. In order to curb external influences, he hopes to increase the salaries of judges, thereby decreasing any willingness to be bribed. Furthermore, the Duma has recently passed a series of anti-corruption laws, including one aimed specifically at the judiciary. While the problems plaguing the justice system are complex and numerous, and while judicial reform will be extraordinarily difficult, President Medvedev insists that reform is absolutely necessary and will occur.
Iran Sanctions: Rick Grubb
President Medvedev also fielded an audience member's inquiry regarding the interplay of the recent decision by the Obama administration on ABM bases in Eastern Europe and possible UN sanctions on Iran over its questionable nuclear program. The questioner theorized that the shift in US policy was part of a deal that would see Russia shifting its own position to support sanctions on Iran at the Security Council level. Medvedev immediately responded that the Obama administration's decision was entirely based on its own assessment of the strategic interests of the United States. Further, it was not part of a larger Russo-American policy alignment. He then gave a somewhat opaque answer to the question of Russian support for sanctions on Iran, stating that he supported all countries' — including Iran's — rights to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He premised his answer with a statement on the shared responsibility of all state actors in upholding international law, thereby promoting the safety of individuals around the world. At the same time, he emphasized the importance of developing nuclear energy in a peaceful manner, and in ensuring that all states are free to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs. He remains skeptical that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful in nature. Medvedev qualified his answer by saying that although he would not get into a discussion of the effectiveness of sanction regimes, sanctions have not been the most effective tools in the past, and he would rather create positive incentives for Iran. Regarding nuclear weapons proliferation, however, Medvedev seemed to hint that sanctions could be utilized when other viable options have failed.
Plans for Economic Crisis and the G-20 Summit: Ingrid Burke and Rick Grubb
When asked for his plans on solving the global financial crisis, Medvedev explained that his studies in civil and commercial law had given him a complex understanding of economics. He refused, however, to disclose the plans that this complex understanding had led to due to their sensitive nature. Despite his apprehensions prior to the first G-20 summit in Washington DC last year, he had every faith that the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh would lead the way to global economic recovery. He felt that if the work of the G-20 were ultimately to culminate in building the foundations of a new structure that would reshape the global economy, the G-20 would have proven to be a success.
he did not want to over-dramatize the economic situation and stated that there were signs of small improvements emerging. He also spoke of legislation to create jobs as part of his domestic response to Russia's economic problem. He pushed the legislation through the Duma earlier this summer. Medvedev did inject personality and humor into the event when he told the crowd he could not reveal his suggestions for the global economy, fearing another head of state might steal his good ideas. Despite this, he did briefly mention that there is no "magic answer" to the problems. He did assert that the architecture of the world economy, in place since the Brenton Woods Agreement, should be updated to reflect the realities of today. President Medvedev pointed out that the growth and development of the world economy needs commensurate changes in the framework it is built upon. Yet, he did not specify what form these changes may assume.
US-Russia Relations: Ingrid Burke
Medvedev also reflected on the current state of relations between the US and Russia, noting that while there are still differences in opinion, disagreements create dialectics which in turn become progress. When asked later for his five-year plan regarding US relations, Medvedev's disdain for the Bush administration was made clear with the statement, "One year ago…[US] relations hit the dead end. They almost slid to the level of the Cold War." He is, however, very comfortable with President Obama, feeling that they are peers. When Medvedev was a law student at the University of Saint Petersburg, he used to read the Harvard Law Review, which was edited by Obama, also a law student at the time. He stated that he appreciates the fact that dialogues with Obama are truly dialogues, and that conversations with him do not feel rehearsed and therefore futile. He said that Obama's legal training is apparent in every discussion, as reflected by his active listening and his interlocutory prowess. He further praised Obama for his proactive efforts to defend US interests with regard to anti-ballistic missile defense sites, despite the opposition he faced initially from Russia, Europe, and China.
Medvedev's Re-Election Plans: Ingrid Burke
When asked whether he would consider running for reelection in 2012, President Medvedev said that as long as the Russian population trusts him and as long as he maintains their support, he sees no reason not to run. When asked the same question with regard to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he declined to answer but hinted that Putin tends to share his perspective on the matter of reelection. Another audience member then asked whether he and Putin might consider swapping roles in 2012, and Medvedev said that he does not like to make guesses about what the future will hold, but he is willing to take on any role so long as his doing so will benefit his people.
Conclusion: Rick Grubb
Among the various questions touching on serious policy areas, President Medvedev also fielded a number of "lighter" questions ranging from Russian cultural visits to Pittsburgh, to advice for students, to love. It was a pleasant surprise to hear questions such as these and their candid responses. Combined with his willingness to utilize humor and his hands-on approach to the event, it was a pleasant contrast to the serious and scripted nature of the week's affairs, while still maintaining the worthwhile insights that a prominent head of state brings to such occasions. Here's hoping that the University of Pittsburgh will not have to wait fifty more years until the future leaders of Russia return to speak.