Medvedev: ‘I make the big decisions for Russia’

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Russia's new President has issued a fierce public warning to Georgia, and to its Western patrons, that membership of Nato would not have deterred Russia from using military force last month - and would not do so if similar cirumstances arose in future. And he directly accused the US of orchestrating the crisis.

But Dmitry Medvedev also expressed frustration that the war had taken up a whole month of his time, when he had wanted to tackle pressing domestic issues, such as laws on corruption and property ownership designed to create a "normal" business climate in Russia.

The Russian president, in office only since May, was answering questions from the same group of Western Russian watchers who had spent more than three hours quizzing the prime minister and former President, Vladimir Putin, the previous day. And while yesterday's session also took place over an elegant lunch, covered an equally exhaustive range of subjects and afforded Mr Medvedev the same global platform for his views, the differences were also glaring and deliberate,

Where a light-suited Mr Putin had entertained at a resort complex on the Black Sea, the darksuited Mr Medvedev presided in a banqueting suite at the top of GUM , the landmark luxury hopping complex on Red Square, with a view from the windows of the Kremlin. The reason, he explained was that the Kremlin had no space suitable for such a meeting. Where Mr Putin's political position had edges that seemed a little softer than usual, Mr Medvedev trod a fine line between appearing super-tough on Georgia - and any other country that might attack Russian interests or Russian citizens - and projecting an attractive and unthreatening Russia that wanted to take its place in the modern, business oriented world.

A recurrent theme, underlined by his very sparing mentions of Mr Putin, was that he was now the top man in Russia, it was he who took the decisions, including the most difficult one, to sent troops into Georgia, and it was he who now held Russia's future in his hand. There were times when perhaps he protested too much, but it was a virtuoso performance - confident without being strident, authoritative, thoughtful, and all of a piece.

Unlike Mr Putin in his early years in the Kremlin, Mr Medvedev came across as socially at ease with the assembled academics and reporters and remarked how much he had enjoyed meeting and networking at the latest Davos forum. He was assured enough to make a jocular complaint about not having time to eat such gorgeous-looking food, when he was brought a consolation cup of tea, and to propose a closing toast in white wine. Mr Putin's sign off the day before had been to call for a minute's silence for the victims of 9/11. By background and temperament, Mr Medvedev - still only 42 - comes across as a highly effective advocate for Russia in the making.

Which made his uncompromising rhetoric over Georgia, over Nato membership for Ukraine, and over what he saw as the West's attachment to a cold war mentality all the more striking. Describing how he received the distressing news at 1am on 8 August that Georgian forces had entered South Ossetia - he was on holiday on the Volga at the time - he said he had waited until Russian peacekeepers and civilians were killed before acting. Then, he said, he had no choice.

Yes, he conceded, there had been adverse effects on Russia's economy from the action - "but if it is a choice between people's lives and the defence of economic values, you know what you have to choose". And he dismissed any idea that his considerations would have been any different had Georgia already been granted a membership plan for Nato. "As President and Commander in chief, I would not hesitate to make same the same decision that I took then," he said.

On Ukraine, he expressed strong opposition to Nato membership, describing it as an 'existential question' for Russia, but also warning Nato that incorporating a nation that was so divided about membership would hardly strengthen the alliance, "so what point is there in doing that?"

Among the lessons Russia had learnt were that it would need to reform and rearm its army. But,he said: "I don't want a militarised country sheltering behind an iron curtain. I lived in such a country. and it was uninteresting and tedious."

The differences between then and now, he said, were not appreciated by the West, where views of Russia were stuck in the past. There were, he quipped, "too many Sovietologists and not enough Russia-ologists".

Up to now, he said, Russia had been seen not only as the legal successor state to the USSR, but as the ideological successor, too - "and it's really not that at all". "Russia has quite different values... Many of our citizens were born in the Soviet Union, including me. But today's ideological precepts are quite different. Maybe even we haven't completely understood how far we differ from the Soviet Union."

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