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Analysis & Opinion
04.02.10 Somewhere Over The Rainbow
By Roland Oliphant

A think-tank close to President Dmitry Medvedev has released a report recommending a radical overhaul of Russia’s political system, including a return to gubernatorial elections, the disbanding of the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry, and Russia’s accession to NATO and the European Union. But have the thinkers come up with anything more than a liberal wish list? And could Medvedev implement their recommendations even if he wanted to?
The report from the Institute for Contemporary Development paints a vision of the future that looks like a liberal’s dream; a multi-party democracy dependent on two centralist parties vying for a middle class vote; a genuinely free press; the FSB and the Interior Ministry humbled; and an unashamedly Western-oriented foreign policy.

It also raises obvious comparisons with the policies and ideals of the 1990s. And although President Dmitry Medvedev chairs the institute’s board of trustees (it has even been called “Medvedev’s think tank”), he is more likely to distance himself from the political albatross of the Yeltsin era than to embrace the report’s findings.

The rationale is as old as the hills – or at least as old as liberal economic theory. The report’s authors start from the traditional liberal premise that there can be no development of a modern economy – especially the “innovation economy” championed by both President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the past several years – without an open political society.

For Russia’s liberals (indeed, for economic liberals everywhere) it is practically doctrinal that the lack of political competition in Russia underpins its widespread corruption and the lack of transparency in business life. That is bad enough for any economy, but for one seeking to wean itself off commodities exports to become “innovative,” the argument goes, the monochrome political landscape with its “elements of neo-feudalism and archaic institutions,” are crippling. “Only a free person is capable of inventing something new,” as Igor Jurgens, the vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and one of the report’s author’s told journalists Thursday night.

And, as Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center pointed out, even those who do not agree with the liberal premise that economic success is dependent on political freedom agree that the current economic model has to change. “The model of economic growth that relied on energy exports worked extremely well for a few years, but – as some predicted – it has exhausted itself. Both Medvedev and Putin recognize that.”

In politics, the authors envisage a multi-party system formed around two rival parties – one of the center-left and another of the center-right, who would represent the interests of “traditional industry” and the new “middle classes” respectively; communists and right-wing populists would be pushed to the political margins; the state would relinquish its control of the media and especially the monopoly of federal channels on television.

To ensure transparency, major institutions would undergo dramatic reform. The FSB, so often accused of wielding disproportionate influence in politics, would be broken up into counter-espionage and counter-terrorist parts; the Interior Ministry, currently rocked by police brutality and corruption scandals, would be split up and decentralized. The bribe-taking traffic police force would be completely destroyed. The army would be slashed from 1.1 million mostly conscript troops to between 500,000 and 600,000 volunteers.

As for foreign policy, Russia would embrace every kind of international grouping open to it, from the World Trade Organization to the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, and in the long term consider membership of the European Union and “conclude negotiations” with NATO but not necessarily join (as has been suggested in both the domestic and international press). “We never said ‘join’ - we said Russia should conclude its negotiations with NATO,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher, an expert at the Institute for Contemporary Development. “And anyway, if Russia were to join NATO it could not do so in its current form – the alliance itself would have to be reformed first.”

Both Gontmakher and Jurgens insist that their vision is long term, and concede that it lacks clear policy measures that would help achieve their vision. “Since Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, we’ve been reforming, but we’ve never had a picture of where we wanted to end up,” said Jurgens. “This is our picture.”

That is one problem. The public’s (and the political establishment’s) aversion to anything remotely associated with the 1990s and Yeltsin is another. But by far the greatest is that even if the powers that be come to accept the liberal economic premise the idea is based on, they have good reasons to resist it.

“The problem at the moment is that any of these reforms means relinquishing power and reducing the role of the state,” said Lipman. “And that would undermine the position of the current decision makers. So the preservation of the status quo is higher on their list of priorities than making Russia a more prosperous economy,” she said.

It is certainly true that Medvedev does not seem to share the report writers’ vision. He has previously dismissed calls to reinstate gubernatorial elections, and has called for the further federalization, rather than decentralization, of the Interior Ministry.

“If it were meant as a practical recommendation for the government, the report would be ‘step one,’” said Lipman. “But if they thought Medvedev would even listen to them, they’d probably be advising him in private, and would not say this in public.”

Perhaps so. But the authors themselves played down their links to the president. “He’s a politician, and as a politician I doubt he’ll say what he thinks. But it’s not really for the president,” said Gontmakher. “Above all, it’s for society. We want to start a discussion.”
The source
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