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Analysis & Opinion
12.11.09 More Influential Than Oprah Winfrey?
By Tom Balmforth

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued another call for Russia’s modernization in his State of the Nation Address on November 12, but critics say the speech lacked practical substance. Medvedev promised to set forth “concrete plans” for carrying out Russia’s modernization strategy, expanding on his “Go! Russia” article published in September, which offered a stark appraisal of the problems facing the country. The president once again underlined the need for profound structural change based on the “institutions of democracy,” and did in fact promise some modest political reforms. Nonetheless, those who were hoping to hear the specifics were disappointed.

As in his “Go! Russia” article, Medvedev was frank in stressing the need for Russia to evolve from the Soviet model, and insisted that Russia could not blame external factors for the economic crisis that hit it so badly. “We have not yet managed to get rid of the primitive structure of our economy…The competitiveness of production here is shamefully low,” he said. “Instead of a primitive economy based on raw materials, we will create a smart economy, producing unique knowledge, new goods and technologies, which are of use to people,” the president added.

While he once again bluntly condemned endemic corruption, as well as Russia’s over-reliance on revenue from natural resources, Medvedev’s address to the Federal Assembly failed to shed any light on the Kremlin’s “concrete plans” for conducting its modernization strategy. “All we got was more rhetoric, frankly,” said Chris Weafer, the chief strategist at Uralsib. “I think it was more a restatement of what he said in his ‘Go Russia!’ article in September, again highlighting the problems the economy is facing and the over-dependency on oil and gas. The bottom line is that it was a speech that was long on rhetoric and just reminded people of what the problems and the issues are. But from an investment point of view it was a disappointment that there were not more specifics, that there were not more details of what the government was going to do, which is actually what we were hoping to hear. That didn’t come.”

Nonetheless, Sergey Markov, a State Duma deputy from the United Russia faction, feels that the speech was significant and demonstrated that Russia is stepping into a new phase of development. “What was most important today is that Medvedev confirmed Russia’s pursuit of the path toward modernization,” said Markov. “Today showed the transition to the next phase in the development of the country. The first phase was the 1990s and gaining freedom; the 2000s was the gaining of state stability; and now - that is to say, the 2010s - we are entering the phase of modernization.”

In spite of the lack of “concrete measures” for modernizing the economy, Medvedev did make some political pledges. He proposed to relax party registration laws to make the electoral process more transparent, including scrapping the minimum number of signatures required for registration for parliamentary polls. Electoral fraud and the lack of transparency in the electoral process have been making regular headlines in Russia ever since widespread fraud in regional elections prompted the three opposition parties to storm out of the Moscow State Duma in October. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia that led the walkout, was palpably pleased by the proposed reforms, smiling broadly during the ovation that followed Medvedev’s proposals. Still, the president was careful to couple these proposals for political reform with a warning to the opposition that they should not “destabilize the state and split society” in the name of democracy, a clear reference to the Duma walkout last month.

Medvedev originally suggested reducing the number of signatures required by a party to register for elections in his State of the Nation Address last year, and the reform was later adopted. But today’s proposals represent a much deeper change to current electoral legislation, and the implementation of last year’s promises does not guarantee success this time around, said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “Medvedev made a lot of bold announcements that would destabilize the political situation and change it.

But, as we know, the present system is suited to the needs of United Russia. And United Russia has shown itself to be an effective lobbyist, skillfully blocking practically all initiatives directed at changing the election legislation. Therefore Dmitry Medvedev will now be confronted with the problem of implementing what he defined as his ‘political initiatives’,” he said.

Liberal Russians who had hoped that Medvedev might steer Russia away from the “power-vertical” that gained traction during Vladimir Putin’s presidency are still searching for evidence that Russia’s current president is able to convert the liberal tone of his speeches into practical democratic reforms. Mukhin, for one, is unsure that Medvedev’s electoral reform proposals will ever see the light of day. “To free parties from collecting signatures before elections and making campaigning easier is possible in principle, of course, but I think that in this situation United Russia will try to somewhat limit the president’s initiatives,” he said.

Outsiders, as well as Russians, are skeptical of Medvedev’s ability to deliver on his promises. Today, Forbes magazine ranked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the head of United Russia, as the third most influential man on the planet. Medvedev, nominally his boss, was at number 43 - just ahead of Oprah Winfrey, but behind Deputy Prime Minister and Putin loyalist Igor Sechin.
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