It’s a classic Catch-22.
President Dmitry Medvedev wants to modernize the country in what would demand political reforms and empowering of democratic institutions. This, in turn, would erode the Kremlin’s vertical of power, which the country’s rulers believe is their only tool to achieve policy goals, including Medvedev’s desired modernization.
Medvedev’s Sept. 10 article “Go, Russia!” — which he has proclaimed as the blueprint for his upcoming state-of-the-nation address and which many political pundits have described as the president’s modernization manifesto — has stirred up a public reaction on an almost forgotten robustness and scale.
More than 13,000 comments have been left on Medvedev’s blog, and scores of political analysts, spin doctors and even jailed Yukos tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky have published articles, arguing the merits of Medvedev’s arguments.
In the article, Medvedev lamented that Russia has increasingly lagged behind developed countries in science, technology and economy. He identified the main hindrances to modernization as corruption, an economy based on exporting raw materials, and a mentality shared by many Russians of being a dependant.
In the meantime, Medvedev promised there would be no drastic personnel reshuffles within the bureaucracy or major changes in the country’s political system. Modernization will be achieved mainly through state support of technical and business innovations, he said.
Medvedev himself has invited comments and suggestions from the public and some political and business leaders, and promised to integrate them into his second state-of-the-nation address, expected to be delivered in early November.
He also recently replaced the top Kremlin speechwriter of two previous presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, with his own appointee, in what some political observers view as a promise of a new policy shift.
While the run-up to the address marks a strong departure from the Kremlin’s usual backstage procedures, the intermediate results are unimpressive.
Of all the political parties, only United Russia has been identified by Medvedev as contributing to the speech. Medvedev has selected two proposals from the ruling party, which were submitted last week: one on improving the situation in the wood-processing industry, and the other on easing punishments for tax arrears.
Medvedev told State Duma faction leaders in opening remarks before a closed-door meeting Saturday that he was looking forward to hearing their ideas for his speech.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said afterward that he had pressed Medvedev to speak about the importance of maximizing the state’s support for the economy and the democratization of political life in Russia.
Of the thousands of bloggers who have posted comments on Medvedev’s blog, the president has singled out only one: Alexei Kucherenko, who calls himself a “futurologist” and “fascist” on his own blog, where he uses the pen name Maxim Kalashnikov. In his suggestion to Medvedev, Kucherenko calls on the president to create a “city of the future,” a kind of a model urban settlement and network of farms that employs all kinds of technical innovations. Kucherenko also indicates that Medvedev should create a committee on innovations under the president.
Representatives of big companies submitted to Medvedev during a meeting Wednesday a more detailed plan of stimulating businesses to participate in the economic modernization of the country, including stronger protection for indebted companies during bankruptcy procedures, a better anti-monopoly law, and lower social taxes. Other suggestions included obliging state officials to order national innovative products and services, and a leveling of the playing field between state corporations and private companies. Of all the proposals, Medvedev supported only the last one at the meeting, on state corporations.
Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, met Tuesday with members of the Public Chamber, a body created by then-President Vladimir Putin to provide feedback to the authorities from civil society. Surkov, widely believed to be the Kremlin’s mastermind on domestic politics, explained to chamber members that Medvedev did not want drastic changes but an evolutionary modernization.
As for ideas related to political reforms, which many political scientists believe is essential for economic modernization, Medvedev has signaled that they are not likely to be accepted.
For example, in a litmus-test question about gubernatorial elections, Medvedev told the Valdai Club of Russia experts last month that he firmly opposed a return of the vote, scrapped by Putin in 2004.
While Medvedev spoke of problems with the court and law enforcement systems in his article, his record of dealing with them has not inspired hopes for more transparent and effective justice in Russia.
Medvedev has continued with a Putin-era practice of installing university buddies in top court positions, and in August he moved to slash the number of criminal charges that can be considered by jury trials.
After the latest regional elections on Oct. 11, which were widely criticized as rigged in favor of United Russia, Medvedev unflinchingly praised the party for its success.
Several responses to Medvedev’s modernization idea have drawn considerable attention.
In one, Marina Litvinovich, a senior member of the opposition group United Civil Front, argued that the country’s elite is incapable of becoming a motor of the modernization. Writing in Gazeta.ru on Wednesday, she called on embattled opposition groups to become a creative, rather than a critical, force and use the opportunity of Medvedev’s desire to modernize to rise to prominence.
Also on Wednesday, Khodorkovsky said in an article published in Vedomosti that Medvedev would only achieve modernization if he moved to replace the country’s corrupt and inert elite with the young entrepreneurs and professionals wishing to live in a country with developed democratic institutions. Otherwise, Medvedev’s modernization rhetoric will be nothing more than “profanation,” Khodorkovsky said.
While Khodorkovsky questioned Medvedev’s sincerity, some political analysts said the president meant what he wrote.
“Medvedev is sincere when he speaks of modernization,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, the president of the Institute of National Strategy, a think tank. “The problem is that he understands it as a way to revive the national economy without changing anything in the country’s political system.”
Historically, Russia has only seen revolutionary modernization that comes at huge human cost and a change in the system of the country’s government, including the reforms pushed through by Peter the Great and Josef Stalin, Belkovsky said. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, who started perestroika in the mid-1980s to reform the economy but leave the Soviet political system largely intact, saw the whole process rapidly turn into a revolution, Belkovsky said.
Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, also noticed a similarity between the current situation and the last years of the Soviet Union, when the country’s dependence on exports of raw materials stalled economic development.
“I believe that Medvedev wants economic reforms, but whether he has any resources to conduct them is the big question,” he said.
That is why Medvedev chose not to question the declared victory of United Russia, which is one of the Kremlin’s power tools, he said.
Medvedev has made few symbolic gestures to suggest that he wants a political modernization, said Alexander Morozov, an independent political analyst and the organizer of the Russian Internet’s most prominent political discussion club.
“The president is weighing risks of starting political modernization, but at the moment the risk of loosing control over the country outweighs other considerations,” he said.
Medvedev could start political reforms if public forces were ready to support him actively, he said. “But Russian civil society has failed even to come up with a road map for political modernization,” he said.