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Analysis & Opinion
14.11.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev’s Conflicting Signals
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Ivanov, Elena Miskova, Andrei Tsygankov

On November 5, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev delivered his first State of the Nation Address, sending rather conflicting signals about his plans for the country’s future. This led the Moscow Times to describe Medvedev’s speech as “a club sandwich.” “Rather than sending out a straightforward message, Medvedev offered some liberal reformist proposals -- juicily sandwiched between layers of hawkish threats and announcements,” wrote the daily.
The centerpiece of Medvedev’s speech was, of course, a list of measures to reform Russia’s political system, going all the way to sweeping constitutional changes - a subject that has been a political taboo even under Vladimir Putin.
Some of these measures are quite liberal and will promote increasing pluralism and accountability in Russia’s political system.

For example, Medvedev called for making the government accountable to the Duma by introducing an obligatory annual reporting requirement. He also proposed measures to facilitate political parties’ participation in federal and regional elections by eliminating some of the election registration requirements.

Another welcome step is his proposal to allow small parties that get between five and seven percent of the popular vote (short of clearing the seven percent Duma threshold) to send one or two deputies to the Duma, to provide those who voted for such parties some voice in the federal parliament.

Medvedev’s plan to delegate the right to nominate regional governors to the party that controls a majority in the regional legislature is also a positive step forward that makes the nomination process (currently Presidential Envoys propose candidates behind the scenes) much more transparent and publicly accountable.

The same could be said of his proposal to reform the Federation Council by making only regional and local legislators eligible for being elected to the upper chamber, and a plan to endow local city councils with the right to send mayors packing for misrule and abuse of office.

Yet in the middle of these reformist proposals, Medvedev announced that he would seek to extend the presidential term from four to six years (and the Duma term to five years), raising fears of a further consolidation of power in the Kremlin. This prompted some analysts to say that this might be a ploy to allow Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to power for a much longer period than previously thought.

Although the idea of extending the presidential term to five or even seven years has been floating around Moscow for quite some time, particularly in the context of extending Putin’s second term, it had largely faded off the political screen after the successful presidential transition to Medvedev last May. Now Medvedev, a liberal lawyer, is calling for substantial change in the Constitution that alters the fragile equation of checks and balances that has proved durable for the last fifteen years (it is an irony that Medvedev proposed to change the Constitution a month before it turns fifteen).

The tone of the foreign policy part of Medvedev’s speech was notably more hard-line. His harsh criticism of the United States, and announcement of plans to retaliate for the planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe with Russian deployments of strategic and tactical nuclear missiles, cast Medvedev’s foreign policy as focused on the past rather than the future. He continues to offer very vague ideas about his calls for a new security architecture in Europe, as well as his plan to reform the global financial architecture. We see a set of banalities rolled out in speech after speech, but very few, if any, specific proposals.

So what does this “club sandwich” really mean? Where is Medvedev heading – to a more democratic and pluralistic system in Russia, or toward a more autocratic, centralized and internationally marginalized regime? Do the proposed constitutional changes to extend the presidential term reflect Medvedev’s strategy to extend his rule, or do they reflect a plan put together by Putin to have his successor do the dirty work and then clear the way for Putin to return to power for many more years? Why has Medvedev failed to address in his speech the economic and financial crisis that is now hitting Russia with full force? Why this and why now?

Andrei Tsygankov, Associate Professor of International Relations, San-Francisco State University, San-Francisco, CA:

mitry Medvedev is not a pro-Western liberal and should not be viewed as such. There are reasons why he headed the Gazprom’s board of directors, became Vladimir Putin’s successor, ordered the use of force during the Caucasus crisis and then wasted no time to recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway republics. His liberalism is of a different kind, and scholars of Russia’s political thinking should have no difficulties recognizing it. Medvedev is an heir to the Russian tradition of strong-state/great-power liberalism, associated with the names of Sergei Witte and Ptyor Stolypin. Quoting Stolypin on the state’s responsibility for creating a citizen is important because it explains the roots of the thinking and makes it clear why Medvedev is not likely to become another Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin. Like Putin, Medvedev is a believer in a strong state role in reforming the society and empowering citizens. “First, a citizen, then civic consciousness” is his motto and response to liberal revolutionaries who favor a radical Westernization of Russia and blame the state for everything that goes wrong.

Medvedev’s vision includes measures to liberate the society’s political energy through regional elections, increasing the State Duma’s mandate and the role of the courts, but it also includes strengthening the state by proposing a six-year presidential term. The latter has already been condemned by people like Mikhail Kasyanov, but is organic to Medvedev’s Russian-style liberalism and is a move in the right direction. If Russia is to survive and reinvent its traditional values and international standing, far-reaching reforms are necessary. They require a generational commitment that can hardly be secured by the truncated two four-year terms. The belief in a strong executive is consistent with the Russian style of a liberal tradition that opposed autocratic absolutism, but not the principle of enlightened autocracy. The latter was crucial not only for preserving national unity and avoiding factionalism, but also for developing social and political freedoms.

Another key component of the great-power liberalism is a tough-minded defense of national interests in foreign policy – something that Medvedev promised more than a year ago during his meeting with Russia’s Ambassadors, and is currently delivering by planning to place short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad in response to America’s missile-defense system (MDS). Russian great-power liberals are hawkish on critical issues of national defense. NATO’s expansion and beginning of MDS deployment threaten fundamental interests of the Russian state, and there can be no compromise on those interests.

Most Russians will support Medvedev’s toughness because they understand that not only reforms, but security and the existence of Russian statehood are at stake. Suggestions that Medvedev should have delayed Russia’s response to the United States’ highly provocative missile defense proposals are not serious. Medvedev understands that he cannot afford to play games by waiting longer to respond to U.S. military preparations. Delays have gotten Russia nowhere with NATO, and they won’t get Russia anywhere with MDS either. If anything, the defensive tactics of playing on the West’s terms and expecting it to understand Russia’s interests has been partly responsible for the current crisis in U.S.-Russia relationships.

Eugene Ivanov, Innovation Program Manager, InnoCentive, Boston, MA:

Political reforms implemented by president Putin during his second term in office have made Russia’s democratic institutions more dependent on the Kremlin, more hospitable to the incumbency, and, ultimately, less competitive. Unfortunately, amendments proposed by president Medvedev in his first State of the Nation address will do little to change the status quo.

Moreover, Medvedev’s initiative to extend the presidential term to six years and the Duma deputy terms to five years appears to be a step in the wrong direction. Extending elected officials’ terms without imposing term limits means fewer elections. Fewer elections mean less political competition. It’s that simple. As of today, the Russian electorate is not overwhelmed with election campaigns, which, when they do take place, are short and non-eventful, if not outright boring. If nothing else, more frequent elections in Russia could help awaken the disengaged and apathetic electorate.

At first glance, the suggestion to allocate one or two “fixed” Duma seats to political parties which gained five to seven percent of the popular vote (just below the current seven percent threshold) looks quite democratic. But here is the issue. In the past Duma election, in December 2007, two political parties currently represented in the Duma, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Just Russia (JR) collected 8.1 and 7.7 percent of the popular vote and were subsequently allocated 40 and 38 Duma seats, respectively. Should Medvedev’s proposal be implemented, a political party may receive only a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than, say, JR, and yet be awarded with hardly a 1/20 fraction of JR’s Duma seats. Won’t this create an impression that some political parties (and voters supporting them) are “less equal” than others?

If president Medvedev really wants to increase party representation in the Duma, as he claims, then the most logical solution would be to reduce the electoral threshold to five or even three percent. Yet, without giving any explanations, Medvedev called such a measure “not necessary.”

Russia’s electoral law openly favors incumbent (i.e. already represented in the Duma) political parties. Medvedev’s proposals fail to address this bias. Take his suggestion to get rid of using monetary bonds to register for elections. With this innovation in place, in order to take part in any election, non-incumbent parties will have to collect varying numbers of supporting signatures (two million in the case of Duma elections). But everyone in Russia knows that these signatures are being bought – by professional collectors who pay cash in exchange for signatures from low-income people such as pensioners and college students.

The real question to ask is why a registered political party in good standing has to post monetary bonds or collect signatures at all? The playing field for all parties in terms of elections should be leveled. A simple process could be implemented when in the year preceding Duma elections, all Russian political parties would go through a re-registration process and then take part in the election without any further preconditions.

It is not a secret that the balance of power in Russia is heavily shifted toward the executive branch of government. It is therefore a good idea to give the Duma some “controlling functions” (in Medvedev’s words) over the Cabinet. A law proposed by the president would mandate annual Cabinet reports to the Duma. Unfortunately, Medvedev didn’t specify what these “controlling functions” should be and thus how the annual reports will be different from the current, completely toothless, “government hours.” The new law ought to make it clear that every annual report is to be followed by a Duma vote of confidence with a simple majority needed to force the Cabinet to resign. Otherwise, annual government reports will rapidly morph in prime minister Putin’s own State of the Nation addresses.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. :

I do not believe that president Medvedev's address reflects an internal Hamletesque conflict on his part. It may be evidence that the members of the Russian ruling elite are not in complete agreement as to what policies will generate the best results for themselves and the country as a whole.

Medvedev and other relevant Russian policymakers may be trying to gauge what are the minimum number of "concessions" that must be made in the areas of foreign and domestic policy to achieve results that the Russian leadership deems to be acceptable. In any event, his actions and not his words are the important barometer to watch.

When Vladimir Putin became the Russian president, there was a lengthy and generally unproductive discussion about what this would mean for Russian policy -- as if one man can act independently of the country's various interest groups and external factors.

Without a doubt, then-president Putin designated Medvedev since he was deemed to be loyal, bright, and controllable. Nonetheless, if Putin had been absolutely convinced of this there would have been no need to transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister.

Medvedev certainly is an excellent "public face" for Russia both domestically and internationally. Conceivably, he will come to enjoy the trappings of the office of the presidency and eventually turn on his mentors. For the moment, however, Medvedev is unwilling to do so and may never be so inclined.

What is a key unknown is whether the Russian elite can remain unified in the aftermath of the world financial crisis. There will be winners and losers. What is uncertain is how great the loser's losses will be, and will they accept the outcome if it is politically determined (such as governmental loans to some but not all oligarchs).

In the foreign policy area, the United States’ placement of a limited number of ABMs in Europe against a hypothetical threat from Iran does not threaten Russia. As I understand it, Russian missiles aimed at the United States either go over the Arctic and Canada to hit the United States or are launched from submarines (assuming they function properly).

Perhaps Russia's threat to place missiles in Kaliningrad is merely a bargaining chip, although possibly it may have great symbolism to the Baltic States and the Central European countries that were formerly described as Eastern Europe - that is it is a proxy of the West's commitment to them.

In a world where the ideological war is over, only economics matter. I think Russia, the United States and the European Union all understand this. The EU member states lack a strong backbone, as was demonstrated by their reaction to events in Georgia. President Medvedev and prime minister Putin would be foolish to do anything to alter the situation by blaming all of the world's problems on the United States.

If President-elect Barack Obama's first dealings with Russia are negative (recall he was not given the royal treatment when he was detained in Perm with Senator Lugar - the only time he has been in Russia), those Democratic Russian specialists who are concerned about Russia's foreign policy will get the most influence and most important posts in the new administration.

Let us not forget that it was moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter who ordered the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, armed the Afghan resistance against Soviet forces in the country, increased the broadcasting of foreign radio into Eastern Europe and Russia, etc.

Professor Stephen Blank, U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

These are excellent questions and probably deserve a larger space than 600 words. Nonetheless, they must be answered as posed.

The constitutional reforms pertaining to regional government, parties, the Federation Council, and municipal government all appear to be constructive. But it should be pointed out they are not incompatible with the alteration of the president's and the Duma's term. In this sense they continue the long Russian tradition of reforming ministers, or in this case presidents, who proposed significant alterations of the structure of governance, with an eye to strengthening the capacity of the system to function as it is ideally supposed to work, but without threatening autocracy because that is the limit of the possible.

Even if men like Speransky, the Miliutin brothers and other reformers of the Alexandrine epoch, Witte, Stolypin and Khrushchev and Gorbachev intended to bring about democracy or liberalism as it is now or in their time understood (a highly unlikely conclusion), their successes were limited and partial and failed to lead to genuine pluralism, let alone liberalism (the two are not the same thing) and democracy. It remains to be seen if the constructive reforms are implemented and also (the crucial question) the context of that implementation to whatever degree it takes place.
Otherwise the speech is wholly negative.

The failure to address the economic crisis continues the wrongheaded policy of not telling the public how serious things are, and of pretending it is not Russia's fault--hence there is no need to make major reforms.

The simultaneous effort to mount a major political and military challenge to Europe and the United States and to accelerate large-scale defense spending through institutions that are wholly corrupt and inefficient displays further evidence of the economic illiteracy of a government seduced by the siren call of derzhavnost and militarism.
Much of this, and presumably the call to alter term limits and, perhaps, provide new opportunities for Putin to return, have to do with the ascendancy of the Putin entourage in the wake of the Georgian war. They clearly want confrontation with the West and emphasis on defense and energy.

What Medvedev's team seems to want is a rather different economic policy and as a result a suboptimal political structure, managing an even more suboptimal economic structure, will find it much more difficult than other states (e.g., the United States) to address this crisis in a comprehensive or successful way.

Russian elites may argue that the succession went off successfully. And it may have done so, but at the price of confirming and accelerating the likely political crisis that is conjoined with a growing economic crisis. There are already reports of a Russian run on the ruble and it may have to be devalued. Russia's debt has gone back up to $40 billion and the halving of energy prices means that oil has fallen below the point where Russia can afford any of its grandiose plans. Under such circumstances the utterly unnecessary placement of missiles in Kaliningrad and general determination to confront the West, even at the risk of isolation is worse than a crime, instead it is a monumental strategic blunder, but one inherent in the nature of the Russian system.

Elena Miskova, Chair of the Board, the State Club Foundation, Moscow:

It looks as though the desire to trump Obama’s election in sensationalism by putting forward Medvedev’s revolutionary plan has played a bad joke on the Kremlin.

Had Medvedev’s address not been delayed, it might have sounded more businesslike, pragmatic and would have focused mostly on the financial crisis and the ways it affects Russia, as well as on ways to reduce its negative impact on Russia.

Were it to be delivered a week or two later, it might have been better structured and more emotional.
But it turned out as it is – a club sandwich with an aftertaste of a dream - “all is fine and will only get better”.
The multilayered nature of the speech, however, gives grounds for cautious hope. It does not contain answers to pressing economic issues of the day but it gives grounds for asking questions that should all start with “How?”
How to modernize the dilapidated school system, without discussing what we want to see as a result of such education in terms of students’ skills and scholastic achievement? Where will the student go after graduation? How to ensure the continuity of educational standards when making the transition to college?

How to introduce a mandatory health insurance program without understanding what social groups will be covered by such health benefits, including drug coverage benefits?

And, perhaps, most importantly – with whom can the public discuss the new government proposals for the pension system reform, co-payments for medical and drug insurance and so forth? And how will these plans be affected by the financial crisis?

Perhaps the public needs to learn how to question their government?
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