Medvedev says Russia isn't authoritarian, but indicates no easing for opposition

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday hotly rejected criticism of his country as authoritarian, calling it a young democracy, but indicated authorities won't ease up on opposition movements whose attempts to rally are often broken up harshly by police.

Medvedev's comments at an international policy forum in the city of Yaroslavl underlined the narrow straits he has tried to navigate in his two years as president — advocating democracy and reform while not distancing himself too far from the strictures imposed by his predecessor Vladimir Putin.

Putin, now prime minister, remains highly popular in Russia and is widely expected to seek a third term as president in 2012. Medvedev is seen by some as a mere placeholder for Putin as he sits out for four years due to constitutional term limits, while others believe he is a genuine reformer hobbled by opposition from more-hardline pro-Putin factions within the Kremlin.

"I categorically do not agree with those who claim that there is no democracy in Russia, that it is ruled by authoritarian tradition," Medvedev told the forum. "There is democracy in Russia. Yes, it is young, immature, inexperienced — but it is democracy. We are at the very beginning of the path."

However, he added that "freedom of speech, of assembly and meetings, is being realized in practice in precisely established legal limits."

Russian authorities routinely deny opposition groups' applications to hold rallies and swiftly break up unauthorized gatherings. The conflicts have come to seem almost choreographed: protesters try to gather on the last day of every month with 31 days — underlining that Article 31 of the Russian constitution enshrines the right of peaceful assembly — and large squads of police break up the gatherings.

Four European Union lawmakers who joined the most recent demonstration attempt denounced its dispersal, raising hackles in Russia which reflexively rejects foreign criticisms.

Although showing that Russia is unlikely to back off on its suppression of opposition, Medvedev's comments were far less harsh than those of Putin who warned demonstrators in a recent newspaper interview that "you will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it."

In another comment apparently indicating his desire to carefully distance himself from Putin, Medvedev called the collapse of the Soviet Union "a great trial for people; it was a tragedy for some."

That assessment was far more measured than Putin's statement while president that the end of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."