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Analysis & Opinion
24.12.09 The Principle's End Of Year Report
By Tom Balmforth

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s nationally televised roundup of 2009 today managed to touch on all the big themes and events of the year, but the breadth of the interview came at the expense of detail. And while the interview might have been full of liberal rhetoric, it brought nothing new to the table, although Medvedev did sign into law reforms to the Interior Ministry later that day. He seemed more concerned with presenting himself as an independent politician, and brought up subjects that his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, never would.

“Medvedev sounded like a school principal trying to discipline his students, telling them to be good and not bad; to behave and not to misbehave,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center. And the 75-minute interview really did follow the textbook. Medvedev gave his usual lecture on the need to modernize the economy because “without modernization, our economy has no future, in spite of its huge natural resources.” He expressed his usual cautious optimism about Russia’s economic recovery, but said it could be “fairly slow” (because of the need to modernize). Even when he was asked what book he was reading, he cited modernization. “I’ve started reading electronic books – I used to not like them, but now I’ve got used to them,” he said.

The call to modernize has become a hallmark of Medvedev’s presidency and was the driving theme of his November State of the Nation address to the Federation Council. But for all Medvedev’s lecturing, changes to infrastructure are yet to come. “He never mentioned any institutional changes today…he just said ‘we have made the commitment to modernize already,’ and sounded like everything has been done in terms of infrastructure, in terms of laying the basis in order to move toward modernization,” said Lipman. “Today he just called for commitment and responsibility - he was like a school principal,” she said.

Medvedev also said that Russians should take better care of their health; that the army should undergo painful reform; and that it is crucial the situation in the North Caucasus be stabilized. “What struck me was there was nothing new…Usually when these kinds of thing are arranged, at least there is something new – the speaker usually uses the opportunity to launch a new initiative. Overall the event was boring and had a lot of very, very general statements, sometimes so general that they brought a smile to your face,” said Lipman.

The one exception to these generalities, said Lipman, was Medvedev’s pledge to sign into law reforms of Russia’s much-criticized Interior Ministry, but even this was short on specifics, she said. “Today I will sign a law improving the activity of the Interior Ministry that will envisage organizational reform, amendments to some financial issues and certain legal as well as staffing changes,” was all Medvedev said. In his defense, however, he has recently shown he is prepared to lay off disgraced or irresponsible staff. The dismissal of a number of regional prison officials over the death in jail of Sergey Magnitsky, a lawyer for the Hermitage Capital investment fund, showed a willingness to punish even those outside his direct command.

True to his word, Medvedev did later in the day sign a decree envisaging a 20 percent cut in the Interior Ministry’s work force on January 1, 2012, “with the aim of optimizing the running of the organs of the Interior Ministry.”

Meanwhile in foreign policy, the prospects of a replacement Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) being agreed between Washington and Moscow in early January looked to be on course, with Medvedev praising his U.S. counterpart President Barack Obama as “a strong politician and an interesting person who it is good to deal with.”

But this was about as substantial as it got, and Lipman wondered whether figures would not show that fewer Russians were tuning into their president’s state speeches and interviews. “Today’s event was in the middle of the working day, just before New Year when people are preparing for the holiday, buying presents and so on. I just wonder how many people chose to watch this event which, I repeat, was boring,” she said.

Neither Putin nor Medvedev has ruled out running for president in the elections scheduled for 2012, and the Russian and foreign press, always on the lookout for a division in the Putin-Medvedev power tandem, will likely seize on the liberal language that Medvedev’s largely empty rhetoric was couched in as evidence of conflict. But the president predictably played down suggestions that his more independent line would bring him into conflict with Putin. “Our friendly relationship has not changed, and I am sure it will not,” he said.

Alexei Mukhin, Director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, did not go as far as suggesting there was a split in the tandem, but did note Medvedev’s maturity as a distinct political figure compared to the same time last year. “I noticed that Medvedev almost never referred to the work of Putin, his partner in the so-called tandem, and to Putin’s power-vertical,” said Mukhin. “The only time he did was when he was specifically asked about his relationship with the prime minister.”

The political analyst said he was struck how Medvedev today answered a question about “Basmannoe” justice, a term coined by lawyers representing the former Yukos Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky to denote political pressure on the courts. “You never hear this kind of thing from Putin and other politicians – Medvedev has institutionalized himself as an independent and hard politician and a fully-competent president.”

“Dmitry Medvedev has had a successful year – he really has managed to create his own political image and emerge from Vladimir Putin’s shadow,” said Mukhin. “One thing looks clear: Medvedev has learnt a lot over the course of 2009 and we can expect him to be a lot more decisive in 2010,” he added.
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