Speaking the language of oligarchy

Friday, 15. July 2011     0 comment(s)
Katri Pynnöniemi
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

In the official transcript of the meeting, Medvedev referred to his earlier speeches at Magnitogorsk and the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on 17 June, where he outlined his economic reform plan for the future. The speech at the St. Petersburg forum is remembered especially for its criticism of “state capitalism” and it was readily interpreted as yet another sign of the growing rift within the tandem. However, the case presented by Medvedev that he represents a ‘new road’ for Russia should be scrutinized on its own right and not just in the context of the “problem of 2012”. To do this, we need to quote Medvedev’s words at St. Petersburg at length:

I want to state loud and clear here that we are not building state capitalism”, Medvedev asserted. “Yes, there was a point in our development when we increased the state’s share in the economy, but this was an unavoidable step and in many ways necessary to stabilize the situation after the chaos of the 1990s, and re-establish basic order”. That economic model has “exhausted its potential”, maintains Medvedev, largely because it “depends very much on the situation at the given moment and often leads to hasty action aimed at addressing the sole objective of maintaining what already exists”. In other words, actions of the state or business tend to be driven by whims of chance (and political considerations) rather than what is regarded as normal market behavior (based on calculations of profit).

This kind of situation, Medvedev concludes, “creates an environment not of functioning market institutions, but of manual management [ручное управление]. The effectiveness of such a system is not only very limited, but also very selective”. Switching from collective “we” to personal “I”, Medvedev emphasizes that “My choice is different. Private business and private investment should dominate in the Russian economy”.

One day later in an interview to the Financial Times the Russian president downplayed the view that his words would suggest a widening gap within the tandem. Referring to himself and Prime Minister Putin, Medvedev emphasized that “we represent, to a large extent, one and the same political force”.

There are, I think, two ways to go about interpreting the meaning of President Medvedev’s words.

We may discuss about a gap between words and deeds that appears to be widening towards the end of Medvedev’s presidency. Most analysts would probably agree with Sergei Alekshasenko’s estimate that Medvedev’s statements lead to action in 10% of cases, whereas 90 % is just that: words that have no consequences. Taking this same discussion a bit further, we may also explore if the latest statement on unfeasibility of the “manual management” is such a novelty at all.

Already in late May, Prime Minister Putin in one of his interviews made it known that the new “agency of strategic initiatives” will in the future function as a means of getting rid of that practice. The reference point here, as put by Anton Danilov-Danil’yan, the head of the economic working group at the presidential administration is the “end of the economic crisis period”, due to which it is now possible to return back to “normalcy” where there is no room for manual management.

The other way to interpret the meaning of the president’s statements is to pay attention to the personal pronoun “we” that appears in these speeches.

Michael Urban and Rouslan Khestanov have analyzed (Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp.322-334) president Medvedev’s third presidential address to the Russian parliament and conclude that it is an example of what they call the “language of oligarchy”.

What is notable, the researchers argue, is that Medvedev uses “the exclusive ‘we’ to signal his membership of the collective Subject, the power-holders themselves, who are said to have accomplished a great number of things and are now poised to achieve even more”, they write. Medvedev addresses his fellow elite members and by this way takes a paternalistic attitude towards the people. An attitude that he repeatedly condemns as a ‘habit’ that people should themselves get rid of. In their analysis Urban and Khestanov come to the conclusion that the use of ‘we’ in the president’s speeches signifies Medvedev’s bid for re-election to the presidency. In other words, Medvedev has “gone over to the side of the power-holders” because, ultimately, it is them who hold his future in their hands.

Medvedev’s speech in St. Petersburg was written along these lines. After announcing that he is in favor of “private business and private investments”, the President went on stating that: “The state must protect the choice and assets of those who consciously decide to risk their money and reputation. We need to give them the right to make mistakes and opportunities for drive and development. Moreover, we need to use our state companies to guarantee a modern and stable infrastructure for the economy’s development in general”.

What is significant in this statement is the way in which “we” is put on the place of market institutions as the sole arbitrator of modernization and development in Russia. This would suggest that Medvedev’s “new road” does not take businessmen in a new direction (of economic and political modernization) but it has more to do with the maintenance and ‘rearrangement’ (obustroistvo) of the system created under Putin.

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