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Finding the Right Tone For Medvedev?€™s Speech

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote that U.S. President Barack Obama lacks a convincing narrative that would tie all the elements of his program and “enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected.”

This is also true for President Dmitry Medvedev.

It is not that Medvedev is lacking in effective communications. His use of modern technologies, like running his own Internet blog and online sourcing for his state-of-the-nation address, has won him the audiences that other Russian leaders never knew even existed.

It is not the problem with what Medvedev has to say. His “Go, Russia!” article contained an articulate vision for the country’s future based on innovation. The problem is that he has no narrative. With all the brilliant ideas that he has put forward, he is yet to create a national excitement, much less a popular drive for public sacrifice.

“Modernization” should be Medvedev’s narrative, but the cautious and technocratic way that he talks about it makes it sound like a corporate business plan. It does not feel like a cause that everyone can relate to or be inspired by. Nor does it move people into a call to public duty.

If he were to present modernization as a question of life and death for the country, he would be saying, “We run out of oil in 30 years, and if we don’t learn how to make things that other people would want to buy from us, we are ruined!”

There are reasons for alarm. Russia is becoming a declining, second-tier power. The crisis has forced many economists and analysts to question whether BRIC should be shortened to BIC.

As he puts the finishing touches on his address to the nation on Thursday, Medvedev needs to decide whether he wants to make his regular smart speech, or should he go for the jugular and ask Russians to sacrifice for their country for a generation to come to bridge the “modernization divide” with leading powers.

Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, recently said a country where there is no vibrant intellectual activity is a boring place to live in and if Russia did not modernize, its future would be bleak. This sounds more like a narrative that the president himself should be making.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company.

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