Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev Halfway Into His First Term
Russia Profile
Vladimir Frolov

President Dmitry Medvedev is halfway through his first presidential term this week. So, how is he fairing and where is he leading the nation? Overall, he is doing much better than many predicted, but is still falling short of the “great expectations” his presidency has created. What does Medvedev’s balance sheet look like halfway through his first term? Is he turning into a successful reformist president, or is he shaping up as another modernizing failure in Russia’s history? Will he emerge from Vladimir Putin’s shadow?

Strategically, Medvedev has managed to keep his eye on the ball of his modernization agenda, despite the monumental disruptions of the global financial crisis and the war with Georgia in 2008. And he has managed to cast “modernization” as a life-and-death issue for Russia, making it as close as it gets to a national cause. Medvedev’s unrelenting focus on modernization and innovation has created an entirely new political agenda, opening the door for an ideology of “progressivism” to re-emerge in Russia.

Medvedev has made sweeping police reform a centerpiece of his political agenda, seeking to transform and rebuild one of the most corrupt and ineffective of Russia’s public institutions.

Medvedev’s foreign policy has successfully explored the “Obama and Sarkozy openings” to bring Russia back in from the cold after Vladimir Putin’s “Munich speech.” His presidency has created a distinct feeling of brewing change in this country, a mood many embraced with passion as a precursor to sweeping democratization, while others see it with undisguised apprehension and even fear of life coming apart at the seams.

And herein lies the biggest challenge of Medvedev’s presidency – can he sell “change” as a means to pull the country together, or will he let it be recast as a dangerous and disruptive upheaval that few Russians want to go through again?

His policies are failing to garner widespread public support – 66 percent of Russians do not believe that Medvedev’s “war on police corruption” will succeed, while only ten to 11 percent are enthusiastic over his “modernization” agenda, a recent poll by the Levada Center found – precisely because people are skeptical of his ability to transform the country without wreaking havoc in their personal lives.

Much of his reform agenda is perceived by the public as mostly talk, while Medvedev himself continues to be viewed as “dependent on Putin”. Thirty percent of Russians in December of 2009 said that “all power is in the hands of Putin,” while only 12 percent believe that Medvedev is fully in control, another Levada poll revealed.

So what does Medvedev’s balance sheet look like halfway through his first term? Is he turning into a successful reformist president, or is he shaping up as another modernizing failure in Russia’s history? Why do his progressive policies enjoy so little public support? What is he doing right and what is he getting wrong about running Russia? Will he emerge from Putin’s shadow? What are his prospects for reelection if he decides to run in 2012? Will he or could he run against Putin?

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San-Francisco, CA:

At mid-term, it is notable that Medvedev’s most approved successes have to do with preserving Russia’s economic stability during the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s and the defense of national interests in August of 2008.

The continuing integration of Russia into a new, multi-polar world system preceded Medvedev, and will definitely extend past any terms of office that he may hold. In that aspect he is a constructive, contributing executive, but not the initiator of the process, which will continue over decades.

There is in Russia (as in many other countries) a community of adepts of radical change who are eager to launch processes that they euphemistically call “progressive,” and which are effectively variants of revolution. This community has latched its hopes on the program of modernization, hoping to use the concept as a vehicle to restart their own political agenda – despite a recognized lack of popular support for liberal radicalism.

All societies are instinctively conservative. In Russia – after the chaos and uncertainty of the 1990s – society is particularly uninterested in radical “reforms.” Hence the opinion results that even the Levada Center cannot escape, despite the “reformist” sympathies of that survey organization.

It is not that citizens do not want change. They want improvement and therefore they will accept change. But this change must be understandable, gradual (over decades, not months) clearly beneficial and non-disruptive. In other words, the change must be of evident benefit to the average citizen. Change for the sake of ideology is not acceptable.

Russia’s modernization program is meant to be a 20-year process of installing a more diversified economy. The original motive, stated by Medvedev and still very valid, is that the country needs to shift from an extractive, commodity export-oriented GDP, to an economy that is innovative and knowledge-based, suitable for the 21st century. Whether this agenda is a “life-or-death issue” for Russia is a matter of conjecture – given the present global trends, in the mid-21st century it may be more relevant to produce food and water than computer chips (this statement is relative; it does not deny the importance of technology in modern societies).

The abovementioned goals and timeframes, grounded in practical economic issues, are perceived by frustrated “progressive reformists” as an opportunity for resumption of the chaotic process of “Russian reforms,” reminiscent of Leo Trotsky’s theories of permanent revolution and of Joseph Schumpeter’s now discredited ideology of creative destruction.

It is doubtful that president Medvedev really embraces “liberal utopia for Russia – the sequel.” He has proved himself as a practical man, handling practical problems with practical solutions. However, if he does adopt the neo-reformist agenda, the likelihood of a personal failure will greatly increase. Medvedev will succeed as a transformer of Russia only if he does not pursue an agenda of “progressive reform.”

Genuine, lasting, peaceful and productive social transformation is a slow process – it takes many years, it is tedious, it requires hard work and attention to detail. In a democracy such transformation spans multiple terms of office of several chief executives.

Can such a transformation be achieved in Russia? History answers with a clear “yes.” The reforms of Russia’s Alexander II started with the liberation of the serfs (then about 50 percent of the entire farming population of the country) and touched most of the areas that are presently discussed as topics of Russia’s modernization – including substantial administrative and democratic transformation of governance. The reforms of Tsar Alexander II spanned 25 years and were cut short by the actions of the “radical liberal reformers” of the time – the revolutionaries of “the People’s Will.”

Igor Torbakov, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki:

I would say that the central dilemma posed by Frolov is false: Medvedev is neither a successful reformer nor a “modernizing failure” for the simple reason that he is not modernizing anything. He just “talks modernization.” There are two reasons why he and his entourage might be interested in this “modernization discourse.” Firstly, by initiating the debate, Medvedev seeks additional legitimization of his rule. This new modernization idiom arguably gives him both a separate political persona, distinct from his powerful mentor, as well as a seemingly ambitious strategic goal to be pursued. Secondly, the debate is being used by the various groupings of Russia’s elites who are seeking a better place for themselves under the sun. Public politics in Russia is virtually non-existent, but this doesn’t mean there is no struggle between various interests within Russia’s political class. As the debate goes on, some regrouping among the Russian clans also takes place – initially provoked by the very emergence of the Putin-Medvedev diarchy.

But even if Medvedev was earnestly willing to take on the Putinist system, he would quickly realize his room for maneuver is very restricted. The reins of the executive power are firmly in the hands of Putin – suffice it to point to the discrepancy between the president’s impassioned statements and the subsequent government decisions. Putin also largely controls Russia’s legislature, being the leader of the party that dominates the Parliament. Who would be the potential agent of change? Most oligarchs are part of the system, having adapted to it and found the way to prosper under it. At the same time, the lack of both political competition and a platform for meaningful political debate, coupled with a commodity-based economy and all-pervasive corruption, perpetuate the kind of elites who are busy redistributing rents. Simply put, Medvedev-the-would-be-modernizer has no mechanisms, nor tools, nor dedicated and determined cadres who would carry out the comprehensive modernization that will encompass the wholesale reform of the state.

To be sure, some more enlightened members of the Russian elite have a clear premonition of bad things to come if Russia doesn’t modernize. Yet the bulk of the Russian elite – including Medvedev and Putin – seem reluctant to initiate a comprehensive transformation of the country’s socio-economic system. Here the comparison of Russia’s current situation with the perestroika era will be in order. Russia’s present-day leaders belong to the generation who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although they might be ignorant of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous dictum that the “worst times for a bad regime come when it makes an attempt to improve itself,” the experience of the erratic reforms of the late 1980s that led to the disintegration of the great state undoubtedly left an indelible mark in their psyche. (And a number of Russian analysts, such as Frolov, Igor Bunin and others, are correct in noting the importance of the “perestroika fear” factor).

Yet today’s Russia appears to be in a different position than Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Recently declassified documents, including the minutes of the Politburo sessions during the early 1980s, show that Gorbachev was compelled to start doing something by the dire economic situation. However chaotic and contradictory perestroika may seem to be, it was a genuine attempt at reforming the dysfunctional Soviet system – if only in order to save it. The current Kremlin rulers appear to have no such sense of urgency. For the time being, it looks like the “Gorbachev moment” is off. But it will inevitably come – though in a shape and form that at this moment in time is difficult to predict.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC :

Like all new heads of state, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is in the process of learning that it is more difficult to change the course of existing state policies than to continue with the established ones. If Medvedev wants to have a legacy as president, he will need to serve a second term and take actual command over the operation of the Russian government.

As noted by Anders Aslund, the Russian economy is in need of dramatic reform, particularly with respect to the management of state enterprises. Aslund claims that in 2009, Russia’s gross domestic product plunged 7.9 percent, even though Moscow had the world’s third-largest international currency reserves. Russia performed the worst among the group of 20 leading global economic powers. Clearly, president Medvedev must take immediate steps to modernize the state – this has both economic and political components.

The Russian authorities dealt with the recent strikes in Kaliningrad in a different manner than with those in Vladivostok last year. Granted that to fly in riot police from outside Kaliningrad probably would have required (in theory) Poland’s consent, the Russian leadership may be coming to understand that the government must respond to the legitimate grievances of the population without violence.

Medvedev has undoubtedly learned a lot during his first two years in office. He has become more comfortable in the public eye and in interacting with foreign leaders. Foreign business and political leaders have great hopes for president Medvedev; it would be a tragedy for Russia if he failed his country, benefiting a politically-connected elite at the expense of the masses.

Most importantly he has better come to appreciate what he can realistically accomplish given the current correlation of forces (both domestically and abroad).

He cannot ignore the need to address the country’s problems: economic, legal, political and social (the need for improvement in the areas of civil rights, economic modernization, governmental accountability, health, housing, judicial reform, and observation of human rights).  In his remaining time in office, he needs to decide just how important to him and to Russia it is to translate his declaratory policy into fundamental change. One term in office will almost certainly be insufficient to bring fundamental change to Russia, unless his successor is someone who shares his worldview.

The shake-up at the senior level of the Interior Ministry must be followed by systematic action.  This must occur at the federal, regional and local levels. Persons respecting the rule of law and human rights must be appointed to the positions of those individuals who held them without the fear of being held accountable, including for criminal conduct. If a company like IKEA decides not to expand in Russia, president Medvedev must find out why and act on it.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

I regard Medvedev’s tenure as mostly a failure, and strongly disagree with Frolov’s characterization of it. For all the talk of modernization and reform, we have seen strikingly little of it, and in some cases actual regression is taking place.

Thus the army recently announced that it is retaining conscription. Despite numerous attacks, corruption actually is as pervasive today as it was before (military figures attest to this in the armed forces and they are hardly insulated from society). No genuine economic relief is in sight, unemployment remains high, growth is still stunted, the criminal justice system remains what it was, and there is no reform of the political system.

The relationship with the United States has improved somewhat, but Putin and his supporters are blocking progress on the arms control treaty in a quest for more nuclear weapons and defense spending (none of which will eliminate Russia’s core defense problems or those of its defense industry).

There are signs of stagnant if not worsening ties with China. Moscow is now only beginning to realize that it overreached in 2008 with Georgia, but cannot retreat from its folly, and the list goes on.

This is hardly an enviable record. Under the circumstances where there is a lot of talk but little or no action, it is hardly surprising that public disaffection is rising and that there is no modernization.

There have been progressive modernizers in Russian history, Catherine II in her first years, Alexander II’s ministers in the 1856 to 1864 period, Mikhail Speransky, Fyodor Stolypin, Sergei Witte, etc. But Medvedev does not walk the walk, and resembles Alexander I, who talked of reform but achieved little and even blocked Speransky.

Thus the crisis of the system, which is now nearing entropy, continues. Another phony election in 2012 will not rescue it and even an economic turnaround will have suboptimal results given the structure of the economy.

Arguably, Putinism is reaching a dead end and something else, even if led by Putin or one of his acolytes, will have to take place.