Russia's Liberal Thaw?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s lofty rhetoric is at last coming true—to a point. The country’s Federal Migration Service has announced an easing of the Soviet-style registration system that has kept many citizens from living wherever in Russia they choose. The Education Ministry has announced that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago will become required reading in Russian high schools—a dramatic reversal of Putin-era efforts to whitewash Soviet history. And for the first time in years, opposition rallies are being allowed in downtown Moscow. Even the Kremlin’s gray cardinal, Vladislav Surkov—the man behind the creation of the country’s brutish pro-Kremlin youth groups—said he expected the Russian opposition to be elected to power in 10 years’ time, and that he sees Russia’s future as “one of the Western democracies.”

Meanwhile, last week Medvedev was busy making friends at the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon. Even though the West and Moscow fell short of a concrete deal involving a European missile shield, Medvedev said that Russia had no appetite “to waste money on an arms race.” He also called for “predictable and transparent” relations with NATO, a far cry from Vladimir Putin’s aggressive rhetoric on NATO expansion.

But the elephant in the cellblock is still Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was Russia’s richest man until he challenged Putin, Medvedev’s patron and predecessor, whereupon he was jailed on tax-evasion charges, and his Yukos Oil Co. was divvied up by Kremlin insiders. For the past year Khodorkovsky has been back in court on fresh charges so outlandish that the presiding judge has laughed out loud at several prosecution claims. Polls say two thirds of Russians don’t consider it a fair trial.

Nevertheless, a guilty verdict is expected on Dec. 15. And a source close to the presidential administration says that Medvedev “agrees fully with Putin that Khodorkovsky deserves to remain in jail,” and is “resigned” to the damage such a position could do to Medvedev’s reformist image. Russia may be liberalizing—if you don’t count Siberia’s highest-profile political prisoner.