Medvedev Calls for Sweeping Democratic Change in Russia

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has called for sweeping political and economic reforms, designed to make Russia a modern, advanced democratic society. In his state of the nation address, Pres. Medvedev said Russia needs to evolve from being a “primitive” economy based on raw materials and natural resources to an advanced economy based on unique innovative human knowledge.

He also said the new Russia needs to be one of “intelligent, free and responsible people”, not one where political bosses dictate policy. He said Russia’s very survival required overcoming a “humiliating dependence on oil and gas”, leaving behind the authoritarian infrastructure of Soviet-era industry and power.

Observers reported that much of the content of his address implied a severe criticism of his predecessor, the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Some in the west have speculated if the election of Barack Obama—whose editions of the Harvard Law Review he read while studying—and a newly pro-active US diplomacy have liberated Medvedev to reveal more liberal tendencies than expected of a Russian leader.

Others speculate Medvedev’s sudden declaration of a commitment to rapid and far-reaching pro-democracy reforms might in fact be an effort to liberate himself from the shadow of PM Putin, widely seen as Russia’s premier power-broker and de-facto ruler. By putting Russia on a new course to more humane and democratic standards and a more fair and grassroots modern economic system, Pres. Medvedev in effect announces his opposition to the continuation of the politics of raw power, oligarchy, corruption and the police state.

That last point is perhaps the most problematic: Putin, while president, vastly expanded the power of the executive and of security forces, loading his cabinet with current and former spies. His efforts were sold to the public in a complex and effective but always tenuous dual logic: on the one hand, the people’s government was cracking down on the mafioso abuses of billionaire oligarchs, taking on Chechen militants, imposing order, and at the same time Putin’s power grab and military grandstanding were a nostalgic evocation of the power of Soviet empire.

Implicit in that dual narrative was the recognition of Russia’s long tradition of authoritarian leadership.

Some political analysts have gone as far as to say Putin not only used this to his advantage in terms of nostalgia for past dominance, but actually sought to persuade Russians that his unapologetic consolidation of power was, within Russian political history, a salient legitimizing feature of his exertion of power. But Pres. Medvedev is of a different generation. He is better positioned, by his coming of age and intellectual development to view rigid authoritarianism as a weakness instead of a strength. But the first truly resonant evidence we’ve seen of this way of thinking was this week’s national address.

Medvedev not only called for a more democratic and “intelligent” Russia, strengthened by a free and modern people, but said the colossal state-run industries created by Vladimir Putin would have “no future” in Russia. Now, just one day after giving the pro-reform speech, Pres. Medvedev has ordered Prime Minister Putin to come up with a plan for restructuring the massive state-run firms he helped create, and which Medvedev now suggests are a threat to Russia’s long-term economic prosperity.

Medevedev wants the plan finalized and presented by 1 March 2010. A statement from the Kremlin, issued Friday, reads: “The absence of controls on their activities in a number of cases has led to the inadequate use of state resources”. As the AFP reports:

During Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency, Russia created an array of massive state corporate “champions” with the aim of spurring growth in sectors such as car manufacturing, aviation, nanotechnology, nuclear energy and arms building. Many economists however say the sprawling conglomerates are costly to the state and their opaque structure gives huge powers with little accountability to Putin allies like Sergei Chemezov, head of Russian Technologies.

There are indications Putin’s state industry strategy may be coming into focus now more as a different kind of oligarchy, one favoring Vladimir Putin, instead of the end to oligarchy that he has promised. Even as the number of millionaires and billionaires in Russia seems to be exploding, due to waves of new wealth from the raw materials economy (oil and gas, primarily), average Russians are seeing costs of living explode and decent wages harder to come by.

Pres. Medvedev is likely aware of the spreading dissatisfaction, and he also likely needs to craft his own policies going forward in a way that points the finger at those who were in charge throughout the boom and drove the comprehensive restructuring of Russia’s economy to rely perilously on the volatile shifts in world commodities markets. It is no small thing that Medvedev called this dependence “humiliating” and used this context to launch into the public consciousness the idea of a brave new democratic Russia.

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Originally published November 13, 2009, at

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