President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday defended his upcoming job swap with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a move that will strengthen democracy, and predicted they will rule Russia together "for a long time."
The switch — announced in September — outraged many Russians who felt cheated of their democratic rights, leading to mass street protests in the run-up to the March presidential election that handed Putin a third term.
'Everybody should relax. This is for a long time' —Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
In a rare live interview with journalists from independent television channels and unusually outspoken anchors from Kremlin-controlled national networks, Medvedev defended the tandem as providing checks and balances.
"It's not bad when the country's future and political life depend not only on the whims of one man, but when all decisions are taken after a discussion, when there are several people in the country who can influence the political process," he said. "This is normal. This is movement toward democracy."
Asked how long the pair can govern, Medvedev said: "Everybody should relax. This is for a long time."
Putin begins a six-year term on May 7, and the following day is expected to formally nominate Medvedev as prime minister.
The frankness of Medvedev's two-hour discussion with the five journalists was in marked contrast to the scripted interviews Putin has given to state television, during which he is rarely challenged or interrupted. Viewers on Wednesday heard an admission of problems rarely voiced on national television.
Alexei Pivovarov, deputy news editor and anchor on NTV television, revealed that he often encounters "restrictions" on what his channel can cover. He said his bosses defend these restrictions as "what is politically appropriate."
NTV was once the shining star of independent Russian television, but after Putin came to power in 2000 he orchestrated its takeover by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.
Russians paid billions in everyday bribes in 2010
When Medvedev was challenged on the failures of his anti-corruption drive — one of the main goals of his four-year presidency — he bluntly laid the blame on what he called a tightly knit world of bureaucrats who have formed their own "corporation" and resist change.
Medvedev said the problem was ingrained in the system, and could not solely be solved by firing those who are corrupt, but would require a change in mentality. He stressed that while it was important to fight high-level corruption, the bribes routinely paid to teachers and doctors by ordinary Russians were no less wrong.
Despite Medvedev's pledges to fight corruption, the payment of bribes has increased. One study estimated that Russia's 143 million people paid about 164 billion rubles, or $5.5 billion Cdn, in "everyday" bribes in 2010.
In a dig at an opposition leader, Medvedev said that no one had a "patent to fight corruption" and accused "some activists" of investigating corruption only for political gain.
Alexei Navalny, a popular blogger who emerged as a rising star of the political opposition during the anti-Putin protests, made his name by exposing corruption in government agencies and state companies.
He responded on Twitter by sarcastically asking where he could get a patent to fight corruption, but he also offered up some rare praise for the president.
"I must admit that Medvedev did a good thing when he agreed to an interview in this format," Navalny tweeted.
After the job swap was announced in September, many Russians wondered how Medvedev would feel about giving up the Kremlin job.
Asked on Wednesday whether he ever felt despair during his time in office, Medvedev said that as a president he doesn't have the right to give in to his emotions.
"When I get into a bad mood I do sports and then everything's OK. And then I go and make decisions, however painful they may be," he said.