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Medvedev on stage to project image of tough leader

Published: Wednesday, May 18 2011 7:46 a.m. MDT

Moscow shop assistants watch Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaking during a news conference at a business school in Skolkovo, outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 18, 2011. President Medvedev says he will decide whether to seek a second term when the election comes closer.

Mikhail Metzel, Associated Press

SKOLKOVO, Russia — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took to the stage Wednesday in a vigorous, hours-long news conference suggestive of his mentor Vladimir Putin, showing his clear desire to be seen as an independent, no-nonsense world leader.

In his biggest news conference since taking the helm in 2008, Medvedev said Russia should modernize faster than predecessor Putin thinks, but remained coy about whether he plans to seek a second term.

Medvedev made a point to express clear differences of opinion with his powerful prime minister as he sought to project an image of a strong and modern leader with tough statements on foreign policy.

He issued a warning to the United States on missile defense and warned other nations that Moscow wouldn't support foreign interference in Syria. At the same time, he urged liberalization on domestic issues and challenged Putin, who many see as the senior partner in Russia's ruling tandem.

The boyish 45-year-old Medvedev, who tweets and blogs actively, became the first Russian leader to personally take reporters' questions during the news conference that lasted more than two hours. Speaking at a business school in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo — one of his pet projects — Medvedev said his view of Russia's modernization differs from Putin's.

"He believes that modernization is a calm, gradual movement," Medvedev said. "But I think that we have a chance and enough forces to conduct that modernization faster."

Asked if the release of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would pose any threat to the Russian public, Medvedev said it would pose "absolutely no danger," but stopped short of saying if he plans to pardon him.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, welcomed Medvedev's statement but said the president "did not speak about something that logically follows that statement — when Khodorkovsky will be released."

Russian liberals and rights activists have long called on Medvedev to pardon Khodorkovsky, whose trial and imprisonment have been broadly seen as a vendetta by Putin for the millionaire's challenging of the Kremlin political and economic power. The case has stained Russia's image abroad.

While incomplete, Medvedev's statement on Khodorkovsky clearly defied Putin, who called the tycoon a thief and declared he should stay in prison just before Khodorkovsky's latest conviction in December.

While registering some disagreements, Medvedev emphasized that he and Putin share the same strategic goals and similar policy approaches.

"Our approaches to key issues of national development are very close," Medvedev said. "That doesn't mean that we agree on everything, that would have been very dull and wrong. But strategically we are very close. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to work together."

Despite leaving the presidency after two terms in 2008 to become prime minister, Putin has remained Russia's most powerful politician.

He and Medvedev have been evasive about their plans for March's presidential elections. They both have said they would decide later whether they would run, but most analysts expect Putin to reclaim the nation's top job.

Medvedev said Wednesday it is too early to announce his election plans.

He took a tough posture on foreign policy issues, saying that Moscow wants strong guarantees from Washington that its prospective missile defense wouldn't threaten Russia's security, adding that a failure to cooperate on a missile shield could trigger a new arms race.

"In that case, we will have to develop our offensive nuclear potential, that would be a very bad scenario that would throw us back to the Cold War," Medvedev said.

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