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Analysis & Opinion
18.09.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev’s Appeal To The Nation
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Eugene Kolesnikov, Alexander Rahr, Sergei Roy

President Dmitry Medvedev went online last week to make a dramatic appeal to the Russian people for their support for his modernization agenda. Medvedev posted a broad-ranging piece in a number of online publications where, in a poignantly emotional style, he outlined his vision for the country’s future. His analysis of the nation’s challenges is refreshingly honest, to the point of being humiliating to the Russian elites. But why bring these issues up now, and why in such a format? Why is Medvedev so evasive about the implementation part of his plan for Russia? And where is Vladimir Putin in this equation?

The Russian economy, says Medvedev, continues to churn out shoddy products few people in other countries want to buy. Russian companies, with rare exceptions, trade in goods and services they themselves never created, like energy and consumer imports. Energy efficiency and labor productivity at some of the best Russian companies are shameful by global standards, but their owners and managers remain blissfully unfazed about this. Democratic institutions are stable but people show little interest in democratic self-rule and continue to look to the government to solve problems they should tackle themselves as a community.

Medvedev’s program to turn Russia into an innovation-based economy is in itself innovative. He makes a clear break with a historical tradition of forced modernization from the top at a horrible human cost. He wants modernization to unfold from within by unleashing the creative instinct in every Russian citizen.

He views the modern Russian state as a facilitator of individual innovational impulses of private companies and individuals, not a brutal instrument that builds giant plants and cities in the middle of nowhere.
More importantly, Medvedev views innovation, democracy and freedom as an individual responsibility, not a government function.
It is hard not to agree with Medvedev’s platform of change. Yet, he warns against the entrenched interests who would seek to torpedo it and appeals directly to the people to help him build a new Russia.
He solicits advice and asks his people to contribute at kremlin@gov.ru – a novel strategy for a broad public discourse on the nation’s future.
But he offers few, if any, insights as to how and by what means he intends to implement his roadmap for building a new, technologically advanced and socially progressive Russia.
Why now and why in such a format? What is Medvedev up to? Does it create the sense that he might be reaching the end of his powers to bring change to Russia? Or is it just a PR ploy to shore up public support for the Russian leader and help him push his agenda? Why is Medvedev so evasive about the implementation part of his plan for Russia? Why is he not putting forward any specific proposals to achieve his objectives, but limiting himself only to a very general description of a wonderful future to come? Who are the enemies of his modernization agenda that he vaguely refers to at the end of his essay – “entrenched bureaucracy and un-entrepreneurial entrepreneurs?” Do they have names? And where is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in this equation?

Alexander Rahr, Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:
Medvedev is approaching the mid term of his presidency. He made numerous promises at the beginning of his presidency, but has delivered little so far. More and more observers inside and outside Russia believe that Medvedev is not in command but still a puppet of Putin. He does not want to enter history as an episode. At the same time he obviously had cut a special deal with Putin before his endorsement for the presidency. The alleged agreement allows Medvedev to promote liberal reforms only in the narrow framework set and controlled by Putin. There is no way to Medvedev to break out of these restrictions.
Medvedev now appeals to the younger generation of Russians to help him to introduce necessary liberal changes. He has no clear plan, he only wants to wake up reformist forces.
Putin immediately reminded Medvedev through foreign experts in the Valdai club of the framework. Medvedev must have understood Putin's statement that in 2012 they both ought to decide who of them will run for the presidency as a reprimand. Putin probably started campaigning for the presidency at the meeting of the Valdai club. The carefully worded statement "we will decide together" leaves no doubt who of the two leaders has the greater authority, and who will have the last word in decision making. It will not be Medvedev.

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:
Dmitry Medvedev’s online publication is a turning point of his presidency and a crucial test for the neo-liberal discourse he attempts to galvanize in the Russian polity and society. I believe that this attempt is doomed to fail. It will destroy his political capital and facilitate the undoing of the neo-liberal forces.
Dmitry Medvedev has put everything at stake with his slogan ‘Russia – forward!’ and his liberal manifesto. History, however, has taught Russian people to be wary of slogans and lofty appeals coming from the top. One has to be able to muster a solid support within the elites and important part of the society in general to make a fundamental change, or else the appeal will flop and take down its initiator in the eyes of the people.
The essence of Medvedev’s manifesto, if we put aside the standard calls for technical modernization, diversification of the economy away from natural resources, fighting corruption, improving living standards and so on, can be summarized as follows: there should be less of the state; unleashed individual initiative, free market forces, and multi-party democracy are a key to modernization and bright future; increasing consumption and improving living standards will propel us on the path to real democracy; we need to make it up with the democratic West because we need their technology and money to modernize; corrupt bureaucracy and business elites are going to impede “our work.” But the future “belongs to us” even if “the ruling class does not like it.”
I see no principal difference between this manifesto and the completely detached and ultimately failed views held by the liberals in the 1990s. Western-style democracy will not take root in Russia. Liberal capitalism is not the best tool to modernize the country. The West has not embraced Russia for twenty years; nothing will change this realpolitik approach in the foreseeable future. Finding and fighting internal enemies among state employees and businessmen is a way to self-destruction. Attacking drinking habits by reducing the size of beer bottles when a quarter of the population lives from hand to mouth is near-sighted at best. Dismantling the traditional paternalistic state when, as a recent Levada poll shows, 80 percent of the population believes that the state should take more care of people, is suicidal. Who are this “absolute majority” Medvedev appeals to?
Dmitry Medvedev is pushing the country back into the 1990s. Whether he and the neo-liberals like it or not, Russia will have to find a different path and this will not be the path of westernization described in the manifesto. Russia is again at the crossroads, and we are in for a drama. Hopefully, this drama will play out better than the tragedy of the 1990s. I hope Putin has a different view on how to take Russia into the future, a view that is grounded in Russian history, culture and realities, a view that can mobilize the majority rather than a tiny sliver of Russian society. Putin may play the savior, yet again, if Russia is lucky.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C.:
At last week’s Valdai Discussion Group, Russian Prime Minister Putin stated that in 2012 there would not be an electoral contest between him and President Dmitry Medvedev. That is, in his opinion they alone control the Russia political system. Implicitly, he continues to regard Medvedev as his creation and glorified errand runner. According to Putin, the present power-sharing arrangement has succeeded, even as the country continues to struggle. Is Putin correct in assuming that the Russian population plays no genuine role in the country’s political process other than ratifying their decisions?
Formally, the Russian political system does not offer the opportunity for viable third candidates to emerge. Similarly, there does not appear to be a need for Putin to take into account the people s preferences. Yes, his poll numbers are high, but the same is true with all leaders in Central Asia. Without an opportunity to participate in the country’s formal political structure, it should come as no surprise that the Russian population’s willingness to publicly demonstrate or take other actions is growing according to the same pollsters. It is not clear whether this is indeed true, of if so to what extent and what the consequences will be.
It is premature to accept prime minister Putin’s current vision as to what will be the situation in 2012. In his recent piece in Gazeta, president Medvedev wrote about Russia s ineffective economy, semi-Soviet social sphere, not yet institutionalized democracy, negative demographic tendencies, and an unstable Caucasus. Was he simply engaging in a calculated campaign of disinformation, and if this were the case, who is the intended target? Perhaps he was being candid and trying to ascertain the domestic and foreign response. This would suggest that he has grown in office; in any event, power (even if limited) is seductive.
One has to wonder why the state-owned Russia Today TV channel is willing to report the recent assassination of the deputy chief prosecutor of Makhachkala and other acts of violence in Dagestan. Could it be that Putin is seeking to create a certain scenario, in the hope of making his return to the Presidency to re-establish order inevitable?
It is doubtful that Putin would have become Russia’s acting and then elected president but for the unsolved and mysterious apartment block bombings in 1999 and his willingness to grant lifetime immunity to then-President Boris Yeltsin and his family in his first presidential edict (later formalized in a Russian Federation Law). The Russian constitution’s provision on presidential immunity is rather vague. Though it states that the president shall have immunity, it does not indicate whether this is provision is in effect only during the individual’s time in office, or for life. No where does it indicate that such immunity also extends to the president’s family, or even acts committed before the individual becomes president.
Perhaps if Sergei Stepashin, Putin’s predecessor as Yeltsin’s prime minister, had been a little more opportunistic, events would have turned out otherwise. Russia might be a different country today. In any case, in recent weeks, the Russian press has been replete with columns and stories about the apartment block bombings and various conspiracy theories, some of which ring true. Public opinion polls have been taken on the Russian population’s view of such events.
Most available information seems to indicate that president Medvedev’s campaign against corruption has not been successful. Furthermore, there have been no successful prosecutions of the killers of the many Russian journalists reporting on corruption and human rights issues.
Is it that Medvedev has been overly optimistic in his ability to bring the rule of law to Russia? Did he expect to exercise greater power? Are the limited results of his campaign due to the entrenched Russian bureaucracy, and lack of cooperation from the courts and the military? Or could it be that Russian prime minister did not want his prot?g? to succeed? Did Putin designate Medvedev as his favored successor because he possessed neither the character to ever threaten his mentor’s wishes, nor the gravitas and allies to achieve any goals he set for himself that lacked prime minister Putin’s support?
By the next presidential election, the Russian economy will in all likelihood have recovered to some extent, but Russia will not be transformed into a paradise. Will the timing allow Putin to pull off his grand design and return to the presidency? There are numerous alternative scenarios, some of which should not be ignored.
Lest it be forgotten, prime minister Putin serves at the pleasure of the president. If Medvedev feels that he has been and continues to be deliberately undermined, is it not conceivable that his attempts to distinguish himself from Putin are genuine? Personally, I doubt the differences are merely symbolic, since their world views and backgrounds are so different.
The immediate cause of the riots in Vladivostok was the imposition of import duties on foreign cars. This event may indicate the level of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, which is probably higher than most appreciate. It has been widely reported that while president Medvedev opposed the use of force to put down the participants (the position of the local leadership), prime minister Putin would not tolerate dissent.
If those members of the political and economic elite who emerged from the economic crisis are still controlling the country’s economy, retail markets do not make a comeback, and those hoping to purchase homes or start businesses cannot find sources of funds, any nostalgia for Putin will wane. After all, two and a half years is a long time in politics. More young people get an opportunity to vote. Some older citizens die off. Those who had hopes for a better life, but did not get them could get angrier. And resentment does linger.
Sergei Roy, Editor, www.guardian-psj.ru:
“Russia, Go!” – Where? How? Which Russia?
Dmitry Medvedev’s article “Russia, Go!” lists comprehensively, and with some exceptions correctly, both Russia’s ills and the desirable state of things in some indefinite future when these ills are overcome. However, it is appallingly weak on the crucial point: how is the country to proceed from the unsatisfactory present to the desired future?
Malaise No.1 (according to Medvedev; my priorities are different): the country is economically backward and based entirely on the extractive industries. Its economy must therefore be modernized; it must become science-intensive, innovative, etc.
Question: who will perform the operation of modernization on Russia? Who are, or will be, the modernizers? The private sector – the businessmen? But Medvedev himself says quite correctly that big business, which rules the roost in the private sector (concentrated in finance and raw materials), has no incentive to change the status quo. These people are happy as they are, leading a parasitic existence on the country’s God-given natural wealth, foreign credits, and state subsidies.

Or will it be “the state” that will carry out the modernization, like in the times of Peter the Great or Stalin? Again, Medvedev himself notes that both these modernizers had a powerful repressive apparatus at their disposal as a tool for putting modernization plans into effect at great cost in people’s lives and general suffering. Nothing of the sort is now possible; the only tool that any supreme modernizer has to hand is the existing bureaucracy – which, apart from being abysmally corrupt, is so intertwined with big business as to be indistinguishable from it.

Malaise No.2: corruption. Here Medvedev does provide an answer as to who will eventually do away with this ill, only his answer is not much good: the mechanism that will protect society against corruption, says he, will have the courts for “its central part.” To a Russian mind, this sentiment immediately evokes the question asked some 200 years ago by Alexander Griboyedov: A sudyi kto? “And who are the judges?” Will the legal profession go through a process of self-purification, getting rid of corrupt judges at every level? One need only think of the widespread phenomenon of reyderstvo, illegal or semi-legal seizure of property in which the courts play a “central part,” to realize the phantom nature of such hopes.

Malaise No.3: a “paternalist mindset” prevalent in Russian society. In a couple of recent lengthy articles I tried to show that this “paternalist mindset” nonsense is a legend mindlessly or maliciously repeated about a people that has gone, in one century, through four revolutions (out of submissive paternalism?) and survived a few “ordinary” wars, a Civil War, two world wars in which untold millions died, and most recently the liberalization and privatization “reforms” that destroyed the country’s economy more comprehensively than a world war. It has taken unbelievable gumption and resourcefulness just to survive all this (not to mention things like being the first to go into space) – and yet some people talk of a “paternalist mindset”! And anyway, what’s the use appealing for help and ideas to this paternalist-minded people?

One might go through all of Medvedev’s article taking it apart point by point (as hundreds of bloggers have done, some quite fiercely) and find no answers to the questions asked here except in (politically) trivial terms: “We (Dmitry Medvedev and the good guys among the businessmen, the bureaucracy, the legal profession, the “non-paternalist-minded” people) shall overcome the bad guys (in the same areas).”

If this was put forward as a claim to national leadership, it was an unmitigated flop. One good thing about it is, it makes the answer to the unasked question “Who is Medvedev?” much clearer.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA), San-Francisco, CA:

President Dmitry Medvedev’s article is the formulation of a strategic objective – the modernization of Russia. As is often the case with statements of strategic objectives, his text includes also some general indications of the possible avenues for achieving the strategic goal.

It is normal that at this level of definition, the statement of strategic objectives includes general outlines of the elements of strategic solutions, therefore, observations regarding “vagueness” need to take into account the nature and aim of the document.

Likewise, the “search for Putin” regarding this document should consider that the block structure of the Russian federal executive branch is not patterned like its analog in Washington, D.C. (where there is no prime minister) but resembles more a modern American or European corporation, where the chairman of the board and his team defines strategic objectives and outlines strategic solutions, and the CEO with his team details out solution design and supervises implementation. Thus, Medvedev in this case is exercising his role of the corporate chairman of the board, and Putin would correspondingly perform his organizational role as the corporate CEO.

Medvedev’s appeal to the citizens of Russia is consistent with the style of outreach by top Russian leaders initiated by Putin, who has repeatedly conducted lengthy, multi-hour, and widely reaching “Town Hall” Q&A sessions with Russian citizens and journalists, both domestic and foreign. Medvedev is using a different channel (primarily the Internet) but the substance of the outreach is very similar to that of Putin.

As noted in an earlier post, Russia has evolved an algorithm of governance that is quite modern and is suited to its circumstances, as demonstrated by the consistently high approval ratings received by the leadership. This governance algorithm extends beyond personalities, and consequently focus on individuals – although definitely relevant – should not be over emphasized. In contrast to the chaos of the 1990s, Russia now has a working system that is reasonably effective, in diverse circumstances.

The timing of Medvedev’s statement of strategic objectives is not unusual, on a larger scale. Since Russia’s chaotic 1990s, which culminated in the default of 1998, there has been a decade of rebuilding and stabilization, with substantial general progress in practically all areas of national well-being. Now comes a reasonable moment to review and possibly re-align certain strategic goals with lessons recently learned. The current global economic and financial crisis is very probably one of the catalysts of such a strategic review, although one would suppose that designation of strategic goals would be timely in different situations as well.

The strategic objectives identified by Medvedev can be classified into two broad categories: Russia’s economy of the future, and enhancement of a democratic political culture. The raison d’?tre for both these categories is logical and suitable for Russia at the present state of its reconstruction.

In this context, Medvedev’s outreach to Russia’s citizens is consistent with one of his strategic objectives: to increase the engagement of citizens in the political process and the activities of government. It is curious that this style of outreach is not emulated in other democracies, where citizen engagement in politics is generally very low, where citizens do not bother to spend even a few hours of their life to vote once in a few years, and where electoral turnout as low as 25 percent is not unusual, but often the norm. But even as far back as classical Greece, Aristotle calculated that active political engagement usually involved only about five percent of the polis…

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

We have heard this all before and until there is real action I refuse to get excited. Only if there is real policy change should anyone take this seriously. Medvedev has been in power 18 months and done nothing to overcome these issues which are deeply entrenched in the system.

Undoubtedly, he is competing with Putin but it is also clear that he does not have the power to do anything about it. That he makes these speeches now suggests he is playing to Western audiences, who Russian officials believe are terminally credulous about a new liberal wave in Russia.

If there is to be a new "perestroika" let us see him act. Nice words about democracy, which he has done nothing to advance - quite the contrary, in fact - should not move anyone. As in other cases, actions speak louder than words.
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