A Birthday Present for President

Wednesday, 16. September 2009     0 comment(s)
Vadim Kononenko
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

On 14 September Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev celebrated his 44th birthday. The occasion sparked out a debate in the media as to what could be the best present befitting the president. A few prominent politicians gave their suggestions ranging from a new arms technology for the Russian army to a street-found kitten. My personal favorite choice of a present, amongst those suggested by Medvedev’s well-wishers, was a single day completely free from worries and stress. President Medvedev would certainly appreciate such a gift and he by all means deserves it. However, the situation in Russia shows that this precious birthday present has yet to reach its addressee in the Kremlin.

Indeed, Russia’s economy is experiencing the worst crisis since the Soviet days. Even though the first year of the crisis has not been as detrimental to the Russian companies as it was expected, it certainly took its toll on the economy. As stated in the Russia Economic Report released by the World Bank in June 2009, the decline in global demand, the fall in commodity prices, and the tightening of credit have accelerated Russia’s economic slowdown since 2008. Russia’s real GDP in 2009 is likely to contract about 7.9 per cent. Unemployment could rise to 13 and poverty to 17.4 per cent by the year’s end. According to World Bank forecasts, Russia’s economy could return to modest growth in 2010 but the external environment will remain difficult, which will slow down the economic recovery.

President Medvedev has acknowledged the challenges facing the country in an article which he published on his blog a few days prior to his birthday. The article entitled “Forward Russia!” exposes critically many of Russia’s problems including corruption and inefficient bureaucracy, self-centered oligarchs, and lack of the civil society. Interestingly enough, most of these problems were at the centre of attention of Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Since the time when Putin has got hold of Prime Minister’s office in April 2008, for a second time in his life, he has been formally tasked to tackle all the problems that were mentioned in Medvedev’s article. If anyone, it is Prime Minister who is nearly as capable as to bring to the president the gift of a peaceful day. Yet Medvedev’s article is surprisingly silent when it comes to the head of government: he neither praises Prime Minister for any particular success nor expresses any discontent even though the general tone is critical.

The relationship between the two most powerful men in Russia is rather mysterious. Having started their leadership in close mutual alliance, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin seldom reveal how this alliance works in practice: what are the policy ideas, where do they come from and how are they implemented and if not, why? Certainly one will never know for sure, but at least for the time being, the impression is that the two are looking into the same direction but mainly in order to avoid facing one another.

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