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Analysis & Opinion
20.11.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: The State Of Medvedev’s Nation
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Vlad Ivanenko, Eugene Kolesnikov, Sergei Roy

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev delivered another lofty message last week, speaking for a record one hour and forty minutes during his second State of the Nation Address. Medvedev reiterated the scathing analysis of Russia’s problems and the country’s failure to modernize during the past decades, which he first outlined in his “Go Russia!” article published online two months ago. Will Medvedev’s State of the Nation lead to real change? Why is Medvedev’s program for “modernization” so conspicuously vague? Did his latest speech contain criticism of the political and economic system created under his predecessor Vladimir Putin?

The president said that Russia’s greatest technological achievements are all in the past – a product of the generations born in the Soviet Union, while it is now time for the current generation of Russians to make their mark in the nation’s development and bring it to a qualitatively new level of technological prowess.

He outlined “modernization” as the principal program of his presidency, meant to affect all spheres of life in Russia, including politics, and called for creating a “society of smart, free and responsible people.” His modernization priorities include nuclear energy, space technologies, innovative pharmaceuticals, broadband internet, 4G cellular communications, energy-saving technologies and reforming the nation’s schools by encouraging parents to make a choice between state and private schools.

But instead of a clear roadmap for the bright future and a detailed blueprint of policy priorities to achieve the goals, Medvedev offered a strange cocktail of vague, contradictory and at times bizarre ideas – like introducing fewer time zones in the country.

Most of the policy initiatives announced in the speech were surprisingly modest, and fell quite short of the lofty expectations that dominated public discussion prior to the address. Reforms offered in the political sphere were incremental, building on last year’s initiatives that broadened opposition parties’ access to federal and regional legislative bodies while rectifying some of the worst election excesses.

So sweeping economic reform has been unveiled, apart from the promise of tax breaks for the high technology sector. No new proposals to transform the unreformed social sector have been announced. No major foreign policy initiative, except some elaboration on his year-old concept of the all-European Security Treaty, has been put forward, although the president’s calls for pragmatism and warnings against political grand-standing on international issues should be welcomed.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times recently wrote that the U.S. President Barack Obama lacks a convincing narrative that would tie all the elements of his reformist program together. This seems to be true of President Medvedev as well. It is not that the president is lacking in effective communications with the Russian public: his press operation is sophisticated and his use of modern technologies, like his blog and the online streaming of his State of the Nation Address, have won him audiences that other Russian rulers were unaware of.

The problem is not with what he has to say. His “Go Russia!” article contained an articulate description of his vision for the country’s future – building an innovative Russia. The problem seems to be with how he says it and why. He has no narrative. With all the brilliant ideas he has put forward, he is yet to rouse national excitement or a national drive for public sacrifice to achieve his goals. “Modernization” could well be the right narrative, but the cautious way he talks about it and the sterile political context he puts it into make it sound like a corporate business plan. This does not feel like a public cause that everyone can relate to or be inspired by. Nor does it move people as a call to national duty.

Will Medvedev’s State of the Nation address lead to real change? Why is Medvedev’s program for “modernization” so conspicuously vague? Is he just keeping his cards close to his chest for the time being, to prevent political interference and disruption, or is he simply lacking a plan? When are we going to see action taken on Medvedev’s “modernization agenda”? Did his latest speech contain criticism of the political and economic system created under his predecessor Vladimir Putin? Does Medvedev’s “modernization” imply a certain dismantling of that system, or at least of some elements that seem to hinder innovation? What are the foreign policy implications of Medvedev’s speech?

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D., economist, Ottawa:

In 2007, president Putin abandoned the idea of holding an open contest between the two possible successors, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, both of whom he had carefully selected. Now he finds himself pitted against his former prot?g?e Medvedev in the presidential campaign of 2012. But history does not like to repeat itself. This time, prime minister Putin may face real competition, despite the two advantages he maintains over the other contender. The first involves a solid record of “fat years” (2000 to 2007), which continues to be associated with his name. The second is his political legacy, which continues to dominate Russian political discourse - in form if not in deed - in the guise of “Putin’s Plan.”

If Medvedev is prepared to dispel persistent rumors that he is a mere caretaker waiting to let his powerful predecessor regain his post in 2012, one would expected him to come up with a distinct plan that attracts a sizeable part of the Russian elite and voters. But in doing so, he needs to avoid the trap in which the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev fell in 1991. At that time, he tried to modernize the structure of governance while maneuvering between the nationalists and the hardliners, but found that as the nationalists prevailed, they brushed him aside.

Medvedev has to avoid a situation where the “older” part of elite, in this case the “siloviki” who are loyal to Putin, single him out as the leader of their “younger” rivals, whom we may call “nationalistic modernizers” for lack of a better term. Under the circumstances, it is essential for Medvedev not to articulate his modernization agenda, especially because he will need to take over the very source of revenue that the siloviki consider as their own – hydrocarbon exports – to pay for his plans.

Nor can Medvedev stay on the sidelines for long. He has just two years left to build up his own power base, and his latest moves indicate that he is apparently attempting to attract those “siloviki” who agree that modernizing Russia is a must for the country to survive. He is also trying to expose his opponents as people who resist modernization because it threatens their “corrupt” businesses.

If we talk about the speech itself, it does not provide a clear roadmap; however, in the current environment, this is more of a virtue than a deficiency. Medvedev needs to stay calm until the elite comes to terms with the idea of modernization. This may happen when the second wave of the global economic crisis, expected to take place in 2010, sweeps through the country.

Medvedev could then undertake the following steps. Firstly, given that the governing political party United Russia represents the interests of senior bureaucrats who are inherently incapable of reform, competition among national parties – as would be the case in a regular democratic system – is not going to push his modernization agenda through. In this case, a lower, municipal-level competition for local projects advanced with the help of federal funding could be more effective. Secondly, because of the low level of trust that Russians have in their governing bodies, Medvedev may invite an independent adjudicator, a person of international stature, to be in charge of deciding what the Russian modernization agenda will look like. Similar to Guus Hiddink, who has managed to transform a lackluster Russian soccer team into a formidable opponent, the presence of Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz at the helm of this economic “perestroika” may prompt the ordinary Russian to start believing that this time the country may succeed against the odds.

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

I will start with the positive in president Medvedev’s State of the Nation Address. This is the establishment of “new” national projects to create a broadband Internet and 4G mobile communications infrastructure for the entire country in a very short period of time, develop modern supercomputers, deliver new space and nuclear technologies, radically increase energy efficiency, invest into applied science, create an “electronic government,” upgrade the agricultural sector, improve medical care and the school system. Of course, these projects are not really new, but Medvedev’s determination and his previous experience with the “old” national projects should help him to achieve these objectives.

However, in the president’s technological modernization plan, only agriculture, space and nuclear technologies can produce something able compete in the world marketplace. The rest is infrastructure - communication, education and science. These are essential for modernization, but they cannot carve out a place in the world economy on their own. Nevertheless, Medvedev seems to believe that such an infrastructure, underpinned by the “values and institutions of democracy,” will somehow modernize Russia and help to overcome its shameful dependence on natural resources exports.

This is nothing but a na?ve belief in the miraculous creative powers of the market and Western-style democracy. A somber analysis of Russia’s long-term technological and economic strengths and opportunities is entirely missing. In which spheres of economic production and technology, besides the three mentioned above, can Russia realistically compete? And why can’t the Godsend of abundant natural resources be transformed into Russia’s long-term technological advantage? Why shouldn’t there be a focus on creating added value in the natural resource sector, instead of dreaming about hypothetical leaps into the future, where technologies and competitive advantages are germinated by IT, education, and the values and institutions of democracy?

The political agenda of the president’s address is even more disappointing. It revolves around the same delusion that the Western-style multi-party theater of democracy is the universal Procrustean bed into which Russia should fit in order to be as great and advanced as the Swedes. President Medvedev seems to have read Francis Fukuyama, but not the Trilateral “Crisis of Democracy” report. I very much doubt that Russia’s way is to promote the theatrical side of democracy by broadcasting Duma sessions, or in some other way. Perhaps there should indeed be a Russian form of democracy that suits the country better?

The most frightening statements in the address deal with foreign policy. Medvedev dismisses previous Russian foreign policy as “hasty and clumsy acts driven by nostalgia and prejudices.” If this assessment refers to Putin’s time, as it seems to, there is a change taking place in the Russian geopolitical fundamentals. Combined with the populist (but entirely deficient and simplistic) statement that Russian foreign policy should be judged on the basis of delivering improvements in living standards, Medvedev’s foreign policy objectives could mean essential betrayal of Russia’s geopolitical interests.

I believe that Medvedev’s State of the Nation Address, and the “Go Russia!” article before it, demonstrate that Russia is going through a dangerous period, with president Medvedev potentially taking on a Gorbachev-like role in the history of the new Russia - much to the joy of the United States and their satellites, I suspect.

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

There can be numerous explanations why President Dmitry Medvedev’s State of the Nation Address was vague on the specifics. Medvedev is holding his cards close to his chest since he has yet to decide on what hand to play, and he may be assembling his own people who see the necessity to make a break from the past. Indeed, events may require him to act in ways that current officials refuse to contemplate.

Indeed, the cynics among us have a good track record of predicting that true reform (in the positive sense) will fail. For the past 30 years, many political and business leaders throughout the world were optimistic that the Soviet president Gorbachev, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and even his successor Putin were ushering in a new era where the country would be economically vibrant and the premises of the Soviet/Russian Constitution would produce a normal European political system.

The Russian president has acknowledged the fact that his efforts to combat corruption throughout Russian society are encountering institutional and attitudinal obstacles. He acknowledged that the economic policies of the last eight years have largely failed. While the world economic crisis has exacerbated the county’s economic situation, it cannot be blamed for the current state of things. Medvedev understands the need for action and will not admit defeat, since past policies have failed miserably.

While there is plenty of blame to spread around, Medvedev cannot supply answer the question of who is at fault and survive politically without a stronger base of support in the country. He needs to convince the Russian people to be prospective in their outlook, and not expect immediate results.

In reading both president Medvedev’s address and the print media’s reaction to it, the words of another young president came to mind, one who appreciates that those who are products of the national security state must step aside or be pushed out. In trying to inspire the American people during the most frightening economic time since the Great Depression, U.S. President Barack Obama remarked in his inaugural address that “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

When Franklyn D. Roosevelt was swept into office to the tune of Happy Days are Here Again, promising the American population a New Deal and declaring that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, he had no concrete agenda. He promised hope. Roosevelt was willing to experiment with different governmental programs. If one failed, his brain trust would propose a new one. I hope that both presidents Obama and Medvedev have the opportunity to experiment to see what will work for both countries.

If the Russian NGO Memorial was able to vindicate its rights through the Russian judicial system after its officers were raided without having to file a claim with the Europeans Court of Human Rights, we would know that Medvedev’s words had substance and were not merely symbolic.

Sergei Roy, Editor,, Moscow:

President Medvedev’s second State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly was not just about twice as long as is customary for such documents, it was also much more sweeping in content, setting goals so remote as to make one doubt the aptness of their figuring in the annual speech format. Listening to his 100 minute discourse, those of us who can think back to 1961 might at times recall Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “The present generation of Soviet people will live under communism.”

Indeed, Medvedev’s plans for modernizing Russia included nothing less than creating engines “capable of securing cosmic flights even to other planets.” Sure thing, interplanetary travel is a nice prospect, but aren’t there more pressing tasks that one might more profitably discuss here and now, and report on progress a year later?
Frankly, I was a bit shocked to discover, on second reading, that there was not one word in the address on agriculture. On the sorry plight, no other word for it, of nearly 39 million people still living in Russia’s rural areas. To say nothing of all the country’s other millions whom the latter are supposed to be feeding but can’t, because agriculture as an industry has been virtually destroyed by progressively minded, Yegor Gaidar-type reformers. Very interesting statistics I hit on the other day regarding support for agriculture: in the European Union countries, it amounts to $300 per hectare; in the United States – $324; Canada – $188; in Russia, the majestic sum of $10 per hectare.

I am not sure that broadband Internet and all the other nice, cutting-edge technologies to which Dmitry Medvedev devoted most of his address are going to rectify the situation in this area. No wonder his inspired speech has a sort of Lewis Carrollean aspect for so many people in this long-suffering land.

This impression increased as one heard Dmitry Medvedev mention his plans to “resume discussion” on “bringing down the tax load.” Even forgetting agriculture crying out for a 20-fold increase in investment, how is he going to pay for all the beautiful innovation, modernization, “Internetization,” etc. projects? By keeping the flat, 13 percent income tax indefinitely, or perhaps even lowering this unbearable tax load? Right now every citizen in this country can proudly say “Abramovich and I,” and it’s a pleasant thought, but being the only country in Europe to have this strange arrangement might set some people thinking that there is something not quite right about it, after all.

As one goes down the text of the address, these whys keep multiplying like rabbits. Russia’s blogosphere exploded in Homeric guffaws on hearing Medvedev’s plans to cut down the number of time zones in this country, as if all its other problems have been solved and we may safely start playing these bizarre games. Few people have noticed the obvious conflict between this proposal and another bee in Medvedev’s bonnet, energy saving, the main reason for Summer Time and the proper division of the land into time zones. Some parents might think of the howls of their offspring as they will have to be kicked into consciousness long before sunrise to be in time for school, under the new dispensation…

Or take Medvedev’s proposals for improving the situation in the North Caucasus. He gave the government the task of working out “clear criteria for the effectiveness of the activities of executive federal institutions” there, and promised to appoint someone “personally responsible for the situation in this region.” As if such “criteria” weren’t obvious to any sentient being, and as if there weren’t already someone “personally responsible for the situation,” to wit, the president’s own plenipotentiary representative there. Well, thank God it is not yet another commission, Medvedev’s staple solution for all problems. Clearly bureaucratic games are hardly the proper tool for dealing with a go-slow civil war.

I am truly sorry to sound so negative. Medvedev obviously means well, but as one watches him operate, one sometimes doubts Putin’s wisdom in selecting him for president.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It is difficult (and probably reckless) to attempt to generate enthusiasm in a time of severe economic crisis, even if there are recent glimmers of recovery. In such conditions, promotion of enthusiasm could be perceived as offensive and unthinking – after all, there are many substantial near-term problems confronting Russia – and the program of modernization has been announced as a long-term strategic process, with a realization timeline of about 15 years.
There are also strong and unpleasant social memories of Soviet “shturmovshchina” (cramming), with such wasteful and ridiculous efforts like planting maize above the Arctic circle (Nikita Khrushchev). The psychological capacity for mass enthusiasm has been severely depleted by the Soviet experiment, with its long list of immense projects which were supposed to be accomplished with primitive and inadequate tools, compensated by the enthusiastic self-sacrifice of many thousands of enraptured humans.

One hopes that Russia’s modernization process will be a steady, sustained national effort – more like a vast Apollo moon landing program, rather than a Stakhanovite pseudo-breakthrough, which peters out in a few years.

A State of the Nation speech is hardly a medium to describe in coherent and accurate detail a strategic program of the complexity that is implied in the objectives of president Medvedev’s modernization of Russia. Even though most of the lengthy speech was dedicated to modernization, what would be truly adequate is an unrealistic series of topical seminars. Therefore, the State of the Nation speech was bound to be lacking in details, even for such a highly visible project.

Overall, the success of any transformational program depends on two key factors – the quality of the people who design and implement the program, and the readiness of society to absorb and utilize the change.

Russia has one historic experience with highly successful economic, social and political reforms that were conducted with minimal stress, were highly productive and had a lasting effect. These are the reforms of Alexander II of Russia. The reforms took 25 years (and were interrupted – fatally for Russia – when terrorists killed the monarch.) The success was due to the high professionalism of the implementers, starting with Alexander II himself (he had 15 years of senior government experience before he became Tsar) and extending to his team of highly motivated, intelligent, highly trained, experienced and cohesive managers. It should be noted that these reforms were not inflated by artificially stimulated enthusiasm and “shturmovshchina.”

The scale of the modernization proposed by Medvedev for Russia is not unlike what was done by Alexander II. Russia’s president might benefit from noting the experience of his predecessor. In doing this he may need to re-assess Russia’s history of those times, which is still obscured and distorted by Marxist ideology, given that the communists of the Soviet Union considered themselves the proud direct heirs of the terrorists of the People’s Will.

Suggesting similarities between Medvedev and Obama appears superficial. Medvedev has vastly more experience as a senior manager in a national government, whilst Obama is a newcomer to any position of political of authority. The circumstances in which Obama operates are very different and American goals and challenges in the modern world are significantly different from Russia’s. Points of commonality do exist, and are correctly highlighted in the spirit of “perezagruzka” (reset) – but evidently there is much to be done before one can demonstrate genuine similarities in the positions of the Russian and American presidents.

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

Although Medvedev’s speech carried implicit criticisms of Putin and his policies, there are no mechanisms for change, no specifics, and no visible means of implementing changes. In the short-term major modernization of the system in Russia is quite unlikely, all things being equal.
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