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

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

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

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

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

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.