Medvedev Throws Down the Gauntlet

Update: I just noticed that Medvedev’s article was published not only on Gazeta.ru and the Kremlin website, but also on Vzglyad, on online news source that is more supportive of the regime. So, all the speculation regarding Medvedev’s ‘choice’ of Gazeta seems unnecessary – most likely he was simply aiming for the widest audience.

Yesterday, Pres. Medvedev published an article – Go Russia! / Россия Вперед! – on the Kremlin website and on the liberal news site, Gazeta.ru that is getting some attention, and for good cause. This article was more than a mere editorial – rather, it is a 10-page/5,000-word attempt to explain how Medvedev perceives Russia today, and how he intends to move forward. I’ve only had time to read the English version, and so some of Medvedev’s points might have become muddled in the translation. The text is at times rambling, with a stream of consciousness style. Still, this was not your ordinary Dima production – I was fully expecting yet another nerdy discussion of ‘legal frameworks’ or a painfully intimate and boring portrait of Medvedev’s life. The pinnacle of the latter category was his ‘trip down memory lane‘ in which he had cameras accompany him [alone] on some giant tourist bus, and he gave a tour of every uninteresting street in St. Petersburg.

In contrast, yesterday’s article was so many things – a combination of now-standard statements on economic development, a brutally honest critique of certain Russian attitudes, a rejection of several pillars of the Putin’s Sovereign Democracy, and, most importantly, a brazenly open challenge to certain groups within the political and economic elite.

I know what some journalists and bloggers will say – that anybody can write an article, but what is he doing? To this I answer that the tone of the article – the sense of urgency – shows that Medvedev is trying to capture the moment. Why? To consolidate his power as Russia’s head of state before the 2012 presidential election campaign begins. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been pushing this theory for awhile now, especially in the context of the war on corruption. Whether this article supports my theory is debatable, but one conclusion is clear – these are Medvedev’s real thoughts and beliefs, and they simply are not consistent with ‘puppet’ theory.

Here are some key points of the article:

  • Corruption and a Direct Challenge to Siloviki and Oligarchs – put simply, these groups are Medvedev’s most important audience – they currently manipulate the government, economy, and media to their own ends, and have the most to lose from every one of Medvedev’s proposed reforms. At one point, Medvedev insists that, while there aren’t any brand new (i.e., untainted) judges, prosecutors, police, etc., that doesn’t mean that their jobs are safe. He writes, “We need to create normal working conditions for the law enforcement agencies and get rid of the impostors once and for all.” I was struck by the last phrase. The Russian version – решительно избавляясь от проходимцев – but the noun used is more like ‘rogue’ or ‘mercenary’ almost. Impostor suggests that the bad guys are pretending to be law enforcement agents. But the Russian word actually suggests that the agents are legitimate, but now engaged in all sorts of criminal endeavors through the use of their positions.
  • Rejection of Petroeconomy – Medvedev refers to Russia’s “humiliating dependence on raw materials” that stems from an economy that “largely ignores individual needs.” So, even though Russia can make some of the world’s best military hardware and technology, it cannot even make a car that its citizens want to drive, not to mention virtually all other modern consumer goods (I would add that Russia cannot even afford its best fighter jets – they are all sold to India). He also rightly blames the reliance on exports for the volatility in GDP growth and the stock market. Overall, he writes that this weakens Russia in the global economy.
  • Critique of Russian Habits – yes, he mentioned drinking, which will be a source of ridicule there, despite the importance of the topic. More importantly, he criticized some particularities of Russian thinking and social behavior – “Paternalistic attitudes are widespread in our society, such as the conviction that all problems should be resolved by the government. Or by someone else, but never by the person who is actually there.” I like the last part. It reminds me of my Russian professor’s statement that the dative case – the grammatical structure that generally reflects the impact outside forces on a person – reflects the Russian soul. It signifies that the event is beyond someone’s control, and thus precludes a sense of ownership and responsibility. Medvedev criticizes the nature of public debate in Russia – it is either silent acceptance or bombastic/hyperbolic objections. Also, to skeptics Medvedev points to serfdom and illiteracy as examples of social ills that Russia overcame, despite contrary predictions.
  • Rejection of Putinist Political Philosophy – we knew this already, though this is the strongest statement so far. He supports a system where “the leaders of the political struggle will be the parliamentary parties, which will periodically replace each other in power. The parties and the coalitions they make will choose the federal and regional executive authorities (and not vice versa). They will be responsible for nominating candidates for the post of president, regional governors and local authorities.” If Medvedev is serious about this, it would be an abandonment of Russia’s ‘superpresidential’ system – where the President is almost the only relevant source of authority – and a movement towards a mixed presidential/parliamentary system. To do this, Medvedev at least has to make it easier for parties to form and participate in elections – a reversal of Putin reforms – and he mentions some reforms already undertaken this year. Most importantly, Medvedev states explicitly that he intends to reverse Putin’s ‘power vertical’ reforms, especially the post-Beslan changes regarding appointment of governors.
  • ‘Special’ Russian Path, But Less Acrimony Over Foreigners – Medvedev writes that “Civil society cannot be bought by foreign grants,” and that Russia cannot simply import other countries’ political and legal traditions. BUT, Russia can learn from other nations’ experiences. Also, Medvedev bluntly argues that Russia’s modernization will require the use of intellectual and financial resources of the ‘post-industrial’ societies, and that Russia “should do so without any complexes, openly and pragmatically.” And while disagreements will continue to occur, “resentment, arrogance, various complexes, mistrust and especially hostility should be excluded from the relations between Russia and the leading democratic countries.” WOW – compare that to Putin’s Munich Speech!
  • Miscellaneous – I was intrigued by this comment – “Russia will take a leading position in the production of certain types of medical equipment, sophisticated diagnostic tools, medicines for the treatment of viral, cardiovascular, and neurological diseases and cancer.” I understand the incentive of improving the domestic medical industry. But, the pharmaceutical and medical device industries are generally some of the most corrupt, especially in Russia (e.g., see today’s news about corruption prosecutions against former Mandatory Health Insurance Fund officials; previous story). I think Medvedev means that he intends to clean house in Russia’s seedy health industry.
  • Boring Stuff – the article is peppered with platitudes on information technology, innovation, knowledge economy, and other ‘development’ buzzwords and phrases. Nothing new here – Putin’s been emphasizing this for years, though Medvedev walks the walk when it comes to IT. I think normal people’s eyes glaze over when these words are spoken.

Finally, and most importantly, the concluding paragraph – maybe the most significant paragraph Medvedev has written since becoming President: “People will attempt to interfere with our work. An influential group of corrupt officials and do-nothing ‘entrepreneurs’ are well ensconced. They have everything and are satisfied. They’re going to squeeze the profits from the remnants of Soviet industry and squander the natural resources that belong to all of us until the end. They are not creating anything new, do not want development, and fear it. But the future does not belong to them – it belongs to us. And we are an absolute majority. We will act patiently, pragmatically, consistently and in a balanced manner. And act now: act today and tomorrow. We will overcome the crisis, backwardness and corruption. We will create a new Russia. Go Russia!”

Here, Medvedev is essentially declaring war on the siloviki and oligarchs that I mentioned up in the first bullet point. These are people who make their living by extracting bribes and illegally acquiring businesses or attacking competitors. They range from the lowest level – the militsiya demanding bribes instead of enforcing safety standards – to the highest level – individuals like Igor Sechin, whose tentacles extend to state-owned monopolies and shell companies in Cyprus; like Oleg Deripaska, whose sole business philosophy was to acquire existing enterprises by any means necessary, but never actually building something new – he couldn’t even pay his workers once the crisis hit!

In my opinion, this could be the first ‘ideological’ salvo in the war on corruption. The war has already been underway in the form of firings, prosecutions, and legislative changes. But now Medvedev is tethering this war into a coherent and comprehensive approach to Russia’s modernization. The ‘known unknowns’, of course, are (i) whether Medvedev has the manpower to oppose any challenges that the siloviki/oligarchs mount; and (ii) whether the Russian people are ready to go along with this project. I know a lot of people are thinking – “what about Putin? won’t he be upset? will he poison Medvedev?”. I am still willing to predict that Putin will not do a damn thing to challenge Medvedev, and that he might even be on board with Medvedev’s plans (though I acknowledge that understanding Putin’s true motives is always a matter of speculation). Going forward into the new political season, I bet we’ll see an intensifying of the personnel changes and prosecutions, possibly targeting higher-level officials.

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