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Analysis & Opinion
20.02.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: For Real Or For Show?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Various signals indicate that Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev is seeking to establish a more open style of governing and explaining policy decisions to the Russian people. He is also demonstrating his willingness to engage the regime’s critics directly, and to ensure that the critics’ views are adequately represented at the tables of government. Why is Medvedev trying to establish a more open and democratic style of governance? Is it because he realizes that Vladimir Putin’s “cloak and dagger” style does not fit the times, and a facelift is in order? Will it have any impact on Russia’s path of democratic development?

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Nikolai Sluchevsky
Several weeks ago, on the heels of the brutal double shooting of human rights campaign lawyer and a young journalist from Novaya Gazeta, Medvedev met with Mikhail Gorbachev and Dmitry Muratov, one of the paper’s owners and its editor. The publication is famous for its critical coverage of the Kremlin and of the Russian government. It was noted that he held this meeting while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was away, and that the meeting received almost no coverage on Russia’s state controlled television channels.

Last week, Medvedev moved to reestablish the Presidential Advisory Board on Human Rights, by removing such stalwarts of “managed democracy” as Valery Fadeev and Vitali Tretyakov and inviting genuine human rights campaigners from NGOs critical of the Kremlin’s policy, including the former director of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation Irina Yasina.

Medvedev allowed experts from outside the government, assembled as a task force for the Institute of Contemporary Development, a think tank enjoying Medvedev’s direct patronage, to issue a scathingly critical report of the way Putin’s government is handling the economic crisis.

Medvedev’s first Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov harshly criticized the government for stepping away from the objectives of the ambitious Russia 2020 program that Medvedev made his electoral platform a year ago. Surkov intoned that the government might be sacrificing the objectives of Russia’s modernization to fiscally conservative policies that stifle growth and fail to diversify the nation’s economy.

On Sunday, February 15, Medvedev will make his first appearance on a regular weekly news show on Channel 2 to discuss the economic crisis and what the Russian leadership is doing to diffuse it. This will be the first such appearance of a Russian president in a television interview, a format that is quite common in the West and one that implies that the media has the right and the obligation to question the supreme leader.

This will be in stark contrast to the tightly scripted live television conversations that Putin held with the public, and an entirely new mode of Medvedev’s communication with his voters. As it is planned to make such interviews a regular occurrence on different television channels, it appears that Medvedev is borrowing a page form Franklin D Roosevelt’s book of “Fireside Chats,” designed to comfort and reassure the public during the Great Depression.

Why is Medvedev trying to establish a more open and democratic style of governance? Is it because he realizes that Putin’s “cloak and dagger” style does not fit the times, and a facelift is in order? Or is it because he thinks, deep down in his soul, that Russian politics needs a complete overhaul and more voices and greater openness will be useful? Is it a manifestation of rivalry with Putin and his entourage, or is it simply Medvedev’s own “creative spirit” and his better understanding of what flies in these modern times? Why is he opening up to the regime’s fiercest critics who have been spurned and ridiculed under Putin? Will it have any impact on Russia’s path of democratic development? In short, is it for real, or just for show?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Without a doubt, the Russian political leadership and its advisors underestimated the consequences that the global economic crisis would have on the country -- particularly because the social safety net for the Russian population is neither very extensive nor of a high quality.

The financial impact of the current economic situation in Russia has been uneven, and this can have political consequences, though not necessarily immediately. When the Forbes Annual Billionaire Listing is released, what will the data show and what might those political consequences be?

To interpret with confidence president Medvedev's recent actions, one needs a fuller understanding of two questions. Firstly, is he acting on his own initiative, or with prime minister Putin's approval? And secondly, with what audience may he be trying to develop greater support?

At this time, it is only possible to guess at the answers. Prime minister Putin seems to enjoy a higher level of confidence with the Russian people than president Medvedev, but this may be the result of their greater familiarity with Putin and their belief that president Medvedev still lacks the experience necessary to lead the country.

President Medvedev may be seeking to raise his standing among Russian citizens (or alternatively, foreign leaders). Whether this is a personal initiative or one undertaken with prime minister Putin's blessing is uncertain. The public nature of these alleged policy differences suggests that they may be part of a deliberate strategy by Russia's two leaders.

As the composition (and loyalties) of the Russian State Duma do not change, even if president Medevedev's public airing of policy differences with prime minister Putin are indeed genuine, one has to ask "what will it accomplish?"
With the passage of time, the Russian president will have the opportunity to appoint more senior personnel within the Russian government -- it is likely they will be loyal to him and more likely to share common views with him than with the prime minister.

A key variable will be how the new laws on combating corruption, put in place in December of 2008, are implemented. To what degree will political favoritism enter into the equation? Will prime minister Putin's legal or de facto authority (control) over key personnel in the "power ministries" influence the manner in which the most recent anti-corruption campaign is carried out?

The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General’s office continues its investigation against Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin’s two subordinates (Acting Deputy Minister of Finance Sergei Storchak and the former Deputy Minister of Finance Vadim Volkov). Kudrin is believed to favor private property and a system based on the rule of law, but he has rivals, of whom Rostneft’s Igor Sechin is the most prominent. Which faction will prove more influential with the Russian leadership in the near and medium term? Is the Investigative Committee's leadership more loyal to president Medvedev then to prime minister Putin?

There are always more questions that can be raised than answers one can be confident about.

Nikolai V. Sluchevsky, President, Stolypin Memorial Center for Government Development and Reform:

It is always interesting to observe how throughout history an equilibrium frequently occurs, placing leaders of countries vying for either power or influence in contraposition. This is precisely what appears to be happening now.
The questions posed here need to be parsed in terms of Russia’s domestic and foreign-relations needs and interests. Let me start with the international issues first.

With the world in crisis mode on multiple fronts (let’s not forget global warming, terrorism, poverty, disease, access to water resources, energy demand/supply, etc.) the market paradigm of competition – for resources and customers – cannot solve these problems. Cooperation is required. Whereas the Bretton Woods Agreement signed in July of 1944 establishing an international monetary system was absolutely necessary, the creation of the IBRD (later part of the World Bank) and the IMF as part of the institutional framework proved to be quite problematic, since it created an institutional mindset of economic colonialism. The intent of Bretton Woods, at least on the surface, was quickly expanded from an international monetary policy – with the U.S. dollar as the sole reserve currency – to an institutional framework for global corporate expansion. This framework provided the legal and financial infrastructure that locked in competition as the dominant paradigm of relations between states. I do not claim this is either good or bad, merely a statement of fact which governs today’s state of affairs.

It also, together with the “past-its-expiration-date” Monroe Doctrine, helped to strengthen national spheres of influence.

What has this to do with president Medvedev’s more open and democratic style? Absolutely everything. Today’s global financial crisis, coupled with the failure of, as Marshall McLuhan called it, “the imposition of old forms on new content,” is causing tectonic shifts in global relations and in domestic governance models. For one thing, governments everywhere seem to suddenly recall the wisdom of President Theodore Roosevelt concerning the necessity of government being powerful enough to combat corporate (predatory) power. To do this, the government needs allies, and this requires engagement of, above all, the citizens through openness and transparency. It also demands the absolute adherence to the rule of law.

This is where the appearance of Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev on the world stage at the same time is so critical and, in my view, not coincidental. Here the role of professional training is fundamental: both men are constitutional law professors and post-Cold War leaders. This should allow them to more easily find a common language, without which no cooperation can be possible. In a large sense they have a similar background, which argues for similar approaches to solving problems. Today’s crisis requires new types of solutions – we cannot successfully fight today’s wars with yesterday’s strategies. It is my opinion that both presidents Obama and Medvedev fundamentally understand this.

It is interesting to note how both leaders have, by virtue of their individual personalities, approached problem solving through openness and bipartisanship. This, I suspect, sets the stage for how they might work together. There has been a terrible lack of respect for Russia coming from the West, which pushed then-president Putin into a corner – a corner which his own training and personality were comfortable occupying. It appears that that time is now over, and global trends are working to push president Medvedev in the direction of openness and cooperation. Had John McCain won the U.S. election, this would not have been possible.

In my opinion, president’s Medvedev’s moves toward openness are less about a rivalry between him and prime minister Putin and but more about what the situation of the moment demands, and his training in response to it.

While this may be a nuanced distinction, it is, nevertheless, a vital one. Certainly there are tensions with the prime minister, but it is not an issue of power politics between them. At least not at the moment.

There is an additional aspect to president Medvedev’s approach that seems to be completely ignored, and that has to do with the financial crisis as a national security issue.

The finance minister Kudrin, among others, brilliantly understood one thing – Russia desperately needed a “rainy-day” reserve. He knew that a global financial crisis was on the horizon – even if no one could predict the magnitude or the timing. He also knew that, in that event, no one would be loaning money to Russia: Russia would be entirely on its own. Thus, Russia paid down its international obligations, built up an enormous FOREX, and created, among other things, a Stabilization Fund. With the price of oil where it is, and the budget for 2009 based on $70/barrel prices (although that is being reviewed and revised), Russia could expect to survive for a finite period of time, depending on its “burn-rate.” Reducing the “burn-rate” just by itself, however, will result in significant social unrest. Adding more reserve funds is, for the moment, out of the question.

What is left? To reduce the “burn-rate” through increased productivity and efficiency. This buys Russia more time. However, this also would require a total revision of how the bureaucracies and the administration functions, not to mention the legislature and the judiciary. It also puts enormous pressure on the government to curb corruption, which bleeds a significant amount of capital from productive use. Not to put too fine a point on it, but corruption in Russia is not a criminal issue, but a national security one and, I suspect, both the president and the prime minister understand this. This, more than anything else, may explain president Medvedev’s approach to open governance and his need to work with everyone. There is a strong sense of pragmatism here – what are needed are ideas, not ideologies. What is needed is a true understanding that the issues facing Russia are increasingly existential in nature. The leadership of the country cannot allow itself to be held hostage to the forces of corruption – you cannot be a leader and a hostage at the same time. For these reasons I feel that the president’s approach is far from a show, but a determined and concerted effort to engage the citizens through openness, and to bring the “best and the brightest” together, both domestically and internationally, into a cooperative framework. More than anything else, the objective is to seek stability, especially in these critical times.

Let’s hope that the April meeting between presidents Obama and Medvedev will lead to a discovery of a common language which, in turn, will lead to a cooperative approach in solving some of these problems.

Patrick Armstrong, Political Analyst, Ottawa, Canada:

The first thing that should be kept in mind is that in the present duumvirate, Medvedev and Putin are not rivals. They are members of the same team and have worked together for years. Thus, the most logical beginning, rather than looking for disagreements, is to attempt to see how they work in a complementary fashion.

When Putin became president all indicators in Russia were negative. His early speeches show that he was seriously concerned that Russia might literally fall apart. I believe that he had four aims when he began: to reverse Russia’s economic decline; to halt fissiparous tendencies; to improve Russia’s standing in the world, and to institute what he called a “rule of law,” but what might better be termed the “rule of rules.” He can – and has – claimed real progress in the first three, but has admitted to little success in the fourth. Indeed he once said that corruption had been his greatest failure. His style of governance was very centralizing, not surprisingly given his fears about breakup. It can be argued that all this worked reasonably well for most of his eight years.

Medvedev became president in a less desperate time (although the unexpected international financial crisis has taken some of the shine off the economy). Although he worked with Putin in the bad years, he presumably is not so concerned with the possibility of sudden collapse. He can, therefore, be more relaxed.

Another difference is that during Putin’s time (and Boris Yeltsin’s for that matter), prime ministers were, with the notable exception of Yevgeniy Primakov, creatures of the president. All decisions came to the president’s desk (something Putin once publically complained about) and others obeyed (or, quite often, ignored) presidential orders. Under the present duumvirate, Russia now has a prime minister of real status. This permits a different division of labor. We indeed see Putin working at the “first minister” details and Medvedev discussing the larger “presidential” policy issues. This is not the only possible division of labor, but it appears to be how this one is shaping up. Indeed, for one of the few times in its history, Russia has a degree of pluralism of power. This could lead to trouble, as dual power has before, but so far the two are cooperating. The common assumption that Putin still rules Russia is too facile: there can be no question that he could have amended the constitution and been elected for a third term. The astute analyst must seek to understand why he chose the course that he did.

Medvedev has his sphere and Putin has his. It is clear that Medvedev’s sphere is the “rule of law,” in the widest sense, and encouraging the modernization of Russia. It is also probable that he seeks to loosen some of the centralization (over-centralization to my mind) of the Putin period. This should not be seen as disagreement with Putin, neither should it be seen as tension between the two, but rather what is appropriate for Russia’s circumstances today.

Finally, one should reflect on the fact that Russia has had two presidents in a row who were greatly affected by Anatoliy Sobchak. There should be less obsession, to my mind, with Putin’s KGB background and more consideration of the “Sobchak factor.”

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

Wow, the president will actually talk to victims of crime when Putin is away (not when he is there, mind you), and on television. This is not openness—it is PR. Far too many observers of Russia inside and outside the country are easily gulled by hints of a vague noncommittal liberalism--their term, not mine--into thinking that reform is coming and that the president is really a closet or closeted liberal. If Russia wants to be taken seriously as a reforming state, and Medvedev as a reforming president, let him open or sanction a free investigation into the political murders of journalists, or end the new Gulag, or stop taking over private companies.

We've heard this song of legal nihilism too many times to be lulled into believing it in the absence of concrete actions. And if he's so afraid of Putin that he can only act when his master is out of town, he should give up the pretense of being a president now, and save all of us the trouble of writing more such articles about his liberalism. I am very doubtful that these gestures betoken any substantive change of policy, but rather are differences of style. While style is undoubtedly important in politics, Russia and its partners need deeds, not words, and if we judge Medvedev by the concrete policies of his first year in office, the returns are very meager indeed.

Every chance of accommodation with the West has been throttled or repudiated, while every opportunity for greater state control has gone forward, and the president's so-called reform policies are only the latest prisoner of the Caucasus, in this case the Georgia war and its aftermath. It will take more than this to convince people that he truly is reforming, just as Gorbachev was not taken seriously until real reforms started appearing.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc.:

The proposition that president Medvedev is changing the style of Russian governance away from "Putin's methods" is based on political mythologies that, in my opinion, are contradicted by direct observation.

Factual evidence demonstrates that during his presidency, Putin was one of the most publicly exposed leaders of the entire world. His interviews and public interactions, both domestically and internationally, number hundreds of episodes. Putin's famous conferences for journalists and citizens who contacted Putin in person, by phone, or by electronic mail, in sessions lasting (in one instance) almost five hours - are a record for modern democracy, which has not been equaled by any modern political leader. These conferences can be considered as the return of 19th century town-hall democracy, updated by 21st century technologies.

Medvedev has so far has used a different approach, less massive and more focused on individual interactions with specific journalists. It is too early to compare the track records of both men, considering that Medvedev's term of office is less than one year old.

Regarding outreach to opposition and government critics, one should remember that the political environment of Russia has not been static over the past two years. As Russia's political spectrum evolves, Medvedev, as a head of state, is working with a configuration of political actors that is significantly different from the situation during Putin's tenure. In this context, Medvedev's outreach should not be surprising, nor should this be interpreted as a radical departure from past governance practices. As the so-called "opposition" in Russia is becoming more responsible, less juvenile and utopian, it is earning the right to a serious hearing - especially considering that the president of Russia is specifically non-partisan and expected to act as a unifying, all-national leader who must listen to all voices.

In terms of content, many of Medvedev's declarations are similar to those of his predecessor. Medvedev is obviously not a Putin "clone," but let us remember that the mandate Medvedev received during Russia's presidential elections demonstrates that the electorate wants continuation, not change in Russia's governance. Politically, Russia's opposition - regardless of its criticism of the Kremlin - has basically no popular support. It is profoundly undemocratic to disregard or deny this fact. Those who prefer Russia's opposition to a government that received 70 percent of the popular vote need to accept the democratic reality that the "democratic opposition" has negligible political traction in Russia's democratic processes. In response, this opposition claims to be "suppressed" - but perhaps this claim is just an attempt to blame external factors for what is basically an internal failure?

In summary, in my opinion one should not consider Medvedev's different communication style and outreach to political opponents as some kind of fundamental "change in governance," beyond the normal evolution and transition of personal style, and response to evolving political circumstances in Russia. To me it seems superficial to suppose that because of differences in style, Medvedev and Putin are somehow divergent in substantive governance.
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