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“Go Russia!” – Medvedev’s surprise liberal manifesto

September 11, 2009

Russia is a “primitive raw materials-based economy”. It is blighted by “chronic corruption” and “shamefully low” productivity. Its citizens are subject to “arbitrariness, lack of freedom, and injustice”. The words, no doubt, of an implacable Kremlin foe? Stangely enough, these scathing comments about Russia today come from none other than Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s President.


In a surprise move, Medvedev has published a 4,000-word treatise about the state of the nation, which also lays out his priorities for Russia’s political and economic development. Entitled “Go Russia!”, the manifesto was first published online on a news website, Gazeta.ru, which is often critical of the Kremlin.


What to make of it? There’s plenty to agree with in Medvedev’s analysis. His frank assessments of Russia’s defects largely echo the sentiments of Russian liberals and western investors, as do his proposed remedies. These include improved relations with the West, openness to foreign investment, a crackdown on pervasive corruption, and a more democratic political system.


Medvedev presumably has hidden political motives, of course, for opening his heart to the Russian public in such a way. Russian analysts have interpreted his step as the latest attempt to boost his political authority, and carve an identity independent from his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Putin is still more popular than Medvedev, and widely assumed to be really in charge of the country.


Today Putin revealed that he may again stand for President in 2012. One can’t help but wonder whether the timing of Medvedev’s unusual public statement is linked to the annual Valdai discussion group, where Putin holds forth before western academics and journalists. Perhaps Medvedev wishes to show that Putin’s isn’t the only voice in Russia worth listening to? 


True, many are skeptical about Medvedev’s reformist credentials. Much of what he says he has said before. Medvedev was dubbed a “liberal” by Kremlinologists long ago, and investors had high hopes when he was elected last year. Yet his record so far has been pretty disappointing. Despite Medvedev’s oft-repeated attacks on corruption and the iniquities of the court system, not much seems to have changed.


It’s also easy to overstate the rhetorical differences between Medvedev and Putin. Putin’s speeches were also punctuated with fine, liberal sentiments. Take a look at this state-of-the-nation address by Putin four years ago, where Putin also waxed lyrical about “the development of Russia as a free and democratic state”. If people are cynical, it’s because we’ve heard it all many times before.


Nevertheless, in some important respects, Medvedev’s tone is distinctly different from Putin’s. Take Medvedev’s references to the Soviet past. While Putin often toyed with nostalgia for the Soviet Union, for his younger protege Medvedev, the word “Soviet” has decidedly negative connotations. Look at Medvedev’s repeated disdainful references to “bloated Soviet social security”, and the “worst defects of the Soviet economy”. Medvedev condemns the “ruin, humiliation and annihilation of millions of our compatriots” that took place in Soviet times.


Consider, too, Medvedev’s attitude towards the West. Just try googling “Putin” and “West”, and you will typically find the words “slams”, “blames” or “criticizes” inserted between them. Medvedev, on the other hand, calls for “harmonizing relations with Western democracies”, as well “active work in a Western direction”. According to Medvedev, rebuilding relations with western countries is an economic necessity, and Russians are naïve if they think they can do without their money and technology.


All this may sound wonderful on paper, of course. But when you read the Russian President’s curious dissertation, you can’t help but feel that he still sees himself as an outsider, railing against an entrenched system where “influential groups of corrupt officials” are the ones who are actually in control.


The problem is not simply Medvedev’s ambiguous relationship with his predecessor, Putin – fascinating though it may be for onlookers. More generally, power in Russia is extremely diffuse, with many different bureaucratic and business lobbies, typically obstructing reforms. Under Putin, too, senior officials often complained that they were actually powerless to change anything.


That’s why the real question may not be whether Medvedev is sincere in his liberal beliefs, as I believe he is. The bigger issue is whether he can make any difference, even if he wants to.

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[…] Medvedev is well-known for paying lip service to the grand ideas of reform and democracy, whilst, some would say, overseeing little in the way of concrete results.  Today provides us […]

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