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Analysis & Opinion
11.03.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev The Liberator?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Vladimir Belaeff, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov

In a free-wheeling speech last week at an international conference in St. Petersburg marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Russia by Tzar Alexander II, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev sought to portray himself as a modern successor to the reformist emperor who went down in history as the liberator. Does Medvedev’s “freedom speech” indicate that he is preparing decisive actions to push through liberal reforms as his political agenda for the second term? Or is it just flowery rhetoric that will not be backed by decisive actions?

Alexander II's March 3, 1861 decree to end centuries of feudal ownership of peasants by landlords was accompanied by other major reforms, like the transition to a modern army, the creation of elected local councils and improvements in the legal system.

Medvedev played up the parallels between the emperor’s reforms and his own reform agenda of modernization. "Today we are trying to develop our incomplete democratic institutions, we are trying to change our economy and change our political system. In essence we are continuing a political course that was set 150 years ago. Freedom cannot be put off for another day," said Medvedev.

In the process Medvedev leveled scathing criticism against the system he inherited from his predecessor and his tandem partner and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In strikingly bold words he described the system as too rigid, unresponsive to change and ultimately doomed to failure, as it undermines the role of a free individual and denies Russian society the necessary space to develop. He also highlighted the importance of Alexander II’s reforms as a means to make Russia “an advanced country that shares values with Europe” – a theme that he has been addressing in his own policy initiatives. “Freedom cannot be postponed until later and we must not be afraid that a free individual may make improper use of his personal freedom. That path leads to a dead end,” said Medvedev. “The nation is a living organism and not a machine for replicating the prevailing ideas of the day. It cannot be kept together by tightened screws. It is also clear that excessively harsh policies and an excess of control usually do not lead to the triumph of good over evil, or with reference to modern reality, to a victory over corruption, but to its growth, not to the evolution of governance, but to its degradation. It is therefore essential to give society opportunities for self-organization,” the president insisted.

Then he outlined the principal objective of his own reformist agenda, extending beyond his first term in office, which is due to expire in March 2012: “The aim of modernization and progress has always been to enhance freedom in society, in international relations and in everyday life, to ensure that each individual life and fundamental rights and freedoms are always protected by the state. Freedom from fear, from humiliation, from poverty, from disease, freedom for all – ¬that is the aim of development as I see it. I hope that in the last 150 years we have come to realize the most important thing: that freedom is always better than non-freedom.”

Many observers have taken Medvedev’s speech as a clear signal of his intention to run for a second term and as an attempt to position himself as a liberal modernizer who does not share the ideas of “conservative modernization” – a concept endorsed by the United Russia party and its leader, prime minister Putin (Tsar Alexander III, who put the brakes on his father’s reforms, has been hailed by United Russia ideologues as the ideal “conservative modernizer”).

Pundit Gleb Pavlovsky told Radio Echo of Moscow that Medvedev was preparing for decisive actions. In Medvedev’s speech he saw “the formulation of a program of a really enlightened conservatism, i.e. conservatism that is prepared to move forward.” In his view, Medvedev is preparing for “decisive actions for the implementation of his program and is inviting society to take part in these actions.”

Others see the speech as a manifestation of Medvedev’s helplessness, his inability to push through real changes beyond the lofty rhetoric of freedom. As Vedomosti editorialized, were Medvedev to genuinely share the reformist agenda of Alexander II, then Russia would be on the brink of major changes. The president and his team would face a tenacious fight against the elements of resurging feudalism in Russia’s political and economic life – vassal dependencies among bureaucrats, personal profiteering from government jobs, transfer of key government positions to relatives and cronies, as well as the emergence of the so called “new nobility” in the security structures. So far, Medvedev’s rhetoric of freedom and reform has not been matched by his actions – his reform initiatives seem to be limited to the things he has the power to change, like abolishing the winter daylight savings time.

Does Medvedev’s “freedom speech” indicate that he is preparing decisive actions to push through liberal reforms as his political agenda for the second term? Or is it just flowery rhetoric that would not be backed by decisive actions? Is Medvedev positioning himself for a clear break with Putin’s legacy as a justification of his second presidential term? Is he planning to dismantle the military-bureaucratic vertical of power that Putin built? Will he run as an anti-Putin? If he did, would Putin then decide he had to run as well to preserve his regime and his legacy? Can Medvedev really claim the mantle of a modernizing tsar on a par with Alexander II the Liberator? He talks about gradual, well planned reforms from above, but is it really what the Russian society is waiting for? Could the Russian people overtake Medvedev’s cautious reforms the way they overtook Mikhail Gorbachev’s timid perestroika some 25 years ago? Does Medvedev come across as too condescending to the Russian people as he wraps himself up in the emperor’s cloak – another enlightened ruler who generously grants freedom to his oppressed people?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

For me this so-called “freedom speech” first of all reflects Medvedev’s worldview as a professor of law and his quite shallow understanding of life in the country 150 years ago, as well as today.

Focusing on the legal fact of the “liberation” of serfs he completely ignores the economic conditions in which serfs were liberated, as well as the consequences of such “emancipation.” Of course, nobody today doubts the general positive character of this step, but on the other hand we should not ignore how this so-called “emancipation” was arranged and implemented. As it often was and still is in Russia, the devil is in details of Russian laws and reforms. Unfortunately, president Medvedev obviously ignored this fact.

Since president Medvedev failed to paint an objective picture of the reform, I will remind the reader that “liberated” peasants received 18 percent less land than they actually cultivated before the reform, and household serfs received nothing. The problem of landlessness for the Russian peasants, which played such an important role in their support for the Bolsheviks, is obviously rooted in 1861. We should not forget about redemption payments that former serfs had to pay for 49 years for their freedom – this financial arrangement proved also unrealistic and impossible to execute. President Medvedev should also look at instances of rural violence that followed the reform, as well as at the misery, despair and the anger in the countryside that remained a powerful threat to the throne and eventually paved the road for the revolution of 1917, guaranteeing victory for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.

Although historical parallels are never perfect, I would compare Alexander II’s reforms with Boris Yeltsin’s reforms of the early 1990s. In both cases we are dealing with a historical necessity for a change in the country, and in both cases we have reforms that left the majority of people empty-handed, in misery and in despair, but with a so-called “freedom.” Alexander II’s reforms were certainly beneficial for the gentry that retained control over the land and were paid for the loss of the serfs’ labor; they also received control over the “zemstvo” system, or municipal development, to use the modern terminology. Yeltsin’s reforms in the 1990s were beneficial for oligarchs of a different scale, who privatized the country’s economy and left majority of the Russian people without savings, without jobs and without property. There was much talk claiming that Alexander II’s reforms paved the way for the Russian capitalism, but we are all familiar with what the result of that capitalist development was and what occurred in 1917. We certainly hear a lot today about how Yeltsin’s reforms in the 1990s built a new Russian capitalism; however, it is still unclear where this type of oligarchic capitalism will eventually take Russia.

It also looks quite ridiculous when the Russian president, who portrays himself as liberal, wraps himself in the emperor’s cloak and tries to pose as another enlightened ruler who generously grants freedom to his oppressed people. Russia already had “Tsar Boris” in the 1990s, now it seems that another “liberal” ruler is positioning himself in that role. It would be funny if it were not so sad, actually. I seriously doubt that president Medvedev is positioning himself for a clear break with Putin’s legacy, or that he is planning to dismantle the power vertical that Putin built, or that he is going to run as an anti-Putin. In my opinion, this so-called “freedom speech” is just another attempt to cover the fact that Medvedev’s presidency, which is already through three-quarters of its length, will be not so much to remember, with the exception of the war in August of 2008, the decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and his visit to Kuril islands.

On March 2 Putin attended the 22nd Conference of the Russian Association of Farm Holdings and Agricultural Cooperatives in Tambov. In his address, Putin used the words of Pyotr Stolypin, who more than 100 years ago said that his government “wants to see peasants prosper, as prosperity is a prerequisite for education and true freedom.” Vladimir Putin used this phrase very timely, because this is very true about Russia even today, where freedom without prosperity or even simple well-being of the majority of people will look like a joke.

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

Medvedev’s speech will be mined to serve the current ruling theme of Russian coverage: is the duumvirate about to split? But Putin and Medvedev have been a team for some years and they claim to be carrying out the same program. Considering that Putin could be president today had he wanted to be, that he chose Medvedev and that the two claim to be in accord, more effort should be spent in seeing where they agree than looking for invented differences. Medvedev took the opportunity of the anniversary to situate the present course of reforms in Russian history and make a claim that it is a continuation of the liberator tsar’s policy. Far from espousing opposing views, one can find many of Medvedev’s points in Putin’s speeches.

One of Medvedev’s major themes was that neither the “fantasy about our nation’s special way” nor “the Soviet experiment” proved to be “the most viable, long-lived ideas;” rather, he claims, the “normal, humane order” of Alexander II was the correct course. Neither Nikolai I nor Stalin was correct. Putin described communism as “a road to a blind alley” (1999) and said: “Our goals are very clear. We want high living standards and a safe, free and comfortable life. We want a mature democracy and a developed civil society” (2004). Not so different.

Medvedev’s other emphasis was the importance of freedom: “The aim of modernization and progress has always been to enhance freedom in society.” Here is Putin: “Meanwhile, it is not possible to have a strong state without respect for human rights and freedoms,” and “Our essential task is to learn how to use the state levers for ensuring freedom, freedom of the individual, freedom of entrepreneurship and free development of civil society institutions.” (2000). And: “Our goal is for our civil society to mature, grow, gain in strength and understand its own strength” (2010). So, again, not so different.

Other points of agreement can be found. In 2000 Putin said “Many of our failures are rooted in the fact that civil society is underdeveloped.” He praised modernization in 2007: “Our task is to diversify the economy and make it more innovative.” He, too, wants Russia to become more “European”: “Real integration into Europe [is] our historical choice” (2003). Many more quotations that march with Medvedev’s speech could be enumerated if space limitations did not preclude them.

When Putin became president, a common description of Russia was “in free fall,” and Putin saw “strengthening the state” as the necessary pre-condition for everything else. While this made sense then, I have believed for some time that the control must now be loosened, and that is evidently Medvedev’s task. There is nothing to suggest that Putin disagrees with that and much in his speeches over the past decade shows that he agrees.

Clearly there is a difference between rhetoric and achievement: realities intervene and priorities change. But, on a rhetorical level, we can see that the important points of Medvedev’s speech are in accord with earlier statements by Putin. There is no reason to assume that one contradicts the other.

I operate on the assumption that Putin and Medvedev have worked as a team for some years, that they are still a team and that they are following the same general plan whose outline can be seen in Putin’s essay of 1999. This is, after all, what they say they are doing. Until I see real evidence, rather than mere speculation, I will take them at their word and continue to assume that they are generally in agreement on means and ends. Same plan, new phase.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington, DC:

Russia has already had its new liberator tsar for this cycle of its history. His name was Gorbachev. The communist equivalent of serfdom was ended by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. There is no possibility for another such grand liberator in this era, because there is no longer such grand “enserfment.” It is gone. What is left is a restored mild authoritarian regime. What is left for the reformers to do is to renew and complete the liberalization.

Comparing Putin to Alexander III is appropriate here. It leaves Medvedev in an unwelcome historical timeslot: the one equivalent to Nicholas II. Will he, like Nicholas, reform only reluctantly, in response to pressure, doing more to delegitimize his system than to build a legitimate one? Nicholas' failures were a consequence of his deeply held anti-reformist views, inculcated in him by Konstantin Pobedonostsev. The views of Medvedev are sufficiently reformist, by contrast.

Yet Medvedev, too, has a good chance of failure. Unlike Nicholas, he lacks power. The system has plenty of entrenched reserves for defeating a reformer. The chance is long since gone for being a charismatic reformer – a tsar-liberator, someone to whom people are grateful for their freedom, a factor strong enough to hold off the disillusionment from a myriad of practical setbacks; and someone to whom the world is grateful and wants to give a honeymoon.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin already exhausted that role for this era. Even in their cases, resentment of their practical failures ended up outweighing the gratitude for the liberation; in the last week, Russia basically expressed its lack of reasonable gratitude to Gorbachev, despite his near historical miracle in dismantling the totalitarian system peacefully. Medvedev cannot get a respite from gratitude for liberation; he will need to have a decent measure of proximate practical success that people perceive as connected with his reforms. Or else hope that the surpluses from high oil prices can give him added space for reforms, and somehow avoid their getting churned into the forces for status quo resistance.

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

Sardonic smiles and sarcastic comments have already been made about the fervor with which the liberal-revolutionary segment of the chattering classes in Russia (and elsewhere) seek to find in Medvedev’s quoted recent remarks signs of radical liberalism, of an intent to restart the inebriating chaos of Russia’s 1990s.

President Medvedev is a fine scholar of law. Jurisprudence is about order and process and evolution, not about chaos and disruption. Modern Russians remember the 1990s quite well, and would not willingly repeat them. This reality is the reason for the dismal electoral results of those parties and candidates that today continue to propose the 1990s as a model for Russia.

One must place Medvedev’s fine eulogy of Alexander II in context. Very large segments of Russian society retain Soviet legacy stereotypes of Russian tsars as crowned idiot-knaves (except Peter the Great, albeit with a special ideological metamorphosis: Peter as a “Stalin prototype”). To praise Alexander II on the 150-year anniversary of the liberation of Russian serfs is primo a dutiful homage to historical verity. It is a non sequitur to imagine such praise as a statement of political goals for 2012.

The reforms of Alexander II, which were extensive and implemented the second (and most successful to-date) modernization of Russia (Peter the Great’s was the first) are not a model for liberal revolution. On the contrary – they were carefully designed and conducted over a period of 25 years, ended only by the murder of the tsar by revolutionary terrorists in 1881.

On that scale, and using the year 2000 as a start date, we are now roughly at the midpoint of a 25-year reform period. Medvedev, who does know his history well, is proposing the modernization by Alexander II precisely as a model of Russian reform, which is not liberal-revolutionary, but liberal-conservative, not chaotic, but lawful and ordered.
One must keep in mind that Tsar Alexander’s task was a lot easier than the one confronting Russia today. For example, the liberation of serfs was discussed, planned and partially implemented by several of Alexander’s predecessors. His great-grandmother, Catherine the Great, liberated serfs who had belonged to the Russian Church. Alexander’s father Nicholas I – who has been viciously slandered by historians – made preparations that laid the groundwork for the reforms by his son, for example by expanding Russian education – to provide the country with the schooled citizens and administrators that reformed society would require.

Today Russia is emerging from 70 years of totalitarian misrule of such overwhelming intensity and magnitude that many post-Soviet Russians still cannot fully appreciate the scale of social and physical devastation in their country. It was a lot easier to expand an existing civil society in the Russia of 1861 than to build one from nearly nothing in 2000.

All permanent and progressive reforms come “from the top.” To suppose that this is “condescending” to the people is to rely on false Marxist-Leninist-Maoist paradigms where change must come “from the masses.” History proves that all change, which “came from the masses,” was a social disaster, cost millions of human lives and ultimately failed. The Soviet experience is a fresh reminder. Whether the liberation of Russian serfs by Alexander II, the emancipation of African-Americans by Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal –these were reforms from the top, which were, relatively speaking, the most productive. Ultimately, reform from the top is the purpose and justification of any government.

To interpret Medvedev’s remarks about Tsar Alexander II as a manifesto of future “radical liberalist intentions” seems like an idee fixe: Russia has been on an “Alexandrine course” since 2000.
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