By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has used an interview with a Russian opposition newspaper to support Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev's publicly declared aim of building a freer society in Russia.
Medvedev, who was sworn in as Russian president in May 2008, has sought to strike a more liberal tone than his predecessor and mentor, ex-KGB spy Vladimir Putin, though officials say Russia's two leaders are united on all major issues.
In an interview to be published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper on Monday, the first day of Obama's trip to Moscow, the U.S. leader said he supported Medvedev's statements on improving the rule of law and cleaning up the judicial system.
"I agree with President Medvedev when he said that 'freedom is better than the absence of freedom,'" Obama said, according to a text of the interview supplied by the newspaper.
"I see no reason why we cannot aspire together to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as part of our reset," Obama said.
He was referring to a pledge by both countries to "press the reset button" on relations, damaged last year by rows over NATO expansion, a planned U.S. missile shield in eastern Europe, and the war between Russia and U.S. ally Georgia.
Obama's choice of Novaya Gazeta is symbolic. The paper lampoons officials for corruption and rights abuses and has a reputation for standing up to the Kremlin.
Its best known reporter, Anna Politkovskya, was shot dead in 2006 in a still unsolved murder, and another journalist, Anastasia Baburova, was killed in January.
Medvedev used an interview with the newspaper in April to chide the trade-off between freedom and prosperity which was the hallmark of Putin's eight-year presidency.
The newspaper, which has a circulation of 260,000, has rapped Putin for crushing freedoms and rolling back the rights won under late Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned in 1999. Putin, 56, has never given the newspaper an interview.
Now prime minister, Putin is constitutionally subordinate to Medvedev but diplomats and analysts believe he still holds the real levers of power. Medvedev, 43, has taken a more liberal line on freedom of the media and judicial reform, though critics have dismissed the moves as window-dressing.
Obama said that Washington would not soften its policy on human rights to ensure warmer ties with the Kremlin.
But he sidestepped a question about Politkovskaya's murder by quoting from his own speech on taking office in January. "As I said in my inaugural address: 'To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.'"
Asked about the latest trial of fallen Russian oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Obama said he did not know all the details but added: "It does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now."
Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were sentenced to eight years' jail in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion, though their lawyers say they are political prisoners. The new charges could keep them in jail for another 22 years.
"I would just affirm my support for President Medvedev's courageous initiative to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, which of course includes making sure that all those accused of crimes have the right to a fair trial and that the courts are not used for political purposes," Obama said.