Dmitry Medvedev’s challenge

Richard Sakwa
7 May 2008

In his speech to Russia's Civic Forum on 22 January 2008, the incoming Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called for the struggle against corruption to become a "national programme", noting that "legal nihilism" took the form of "corruption in the power bodies". Medvedev returned to this idea in his 29 January speech to the Association of Russian Lawyers, of which he was chair of the board of trustees, when he called on his fellow lawyers to take a higher profile in society and to battle - again - "legal nihilism".

Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, England.
Among his books are

Putin: Russia's Choice
(Routledge, 2nd edition, 2007) and

Russian Politics and Society
(Routledge, 4th edition, 2008) In deploying this potent phrase, Medvedev clearly had two evils in mind: corruption in the traditional venal sense, characterised by the abuse of public office for private gain; and meta-corruption, where the judicial process is undermined by political interference, known in Russia as "telephone law". The latter had been most prominently in evidence during the Yukos case, which itself had given rise to the term "Basmanny justice", from the courthouse where Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been tried.

In a keynote speech to the fifth Krasnoyarsk economic forum held on 15-16 February 2008, Medvedev outlined both his economic programme and his broad view of the challenges facing Russia. He focused on an unwieldy bureaucracy, corruption and lack of respect for the law as the main challenges the country needed to address. In a decisive tone he insisted: "Freedom is better than lack of freedom - this principle should be at the core of our politics. I mean freedom in all of its manifestations - personal freedom, economic freedom and, finally, freedom of expression."

In this speech, Medvedev reaffirmed earlier promises to ensure personal freedoms and independent and free press. He repeatedly returned to the theme of "the need to ensure the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power", and once again condemned Russia's "legal nihilism" and to "humanise" its judicial system. He promised to reduce bureaucracy, and stated that he was against the practice of placing state officials on the boards of major corporations. The state would continue to play a role, however, but state appointees "should be replaced by truly independent directors, which the state would hire to implement its plans". Medvedev's plans for economic modernisation focused on the four "I's": institutions, infrastructure, innovation and investment.

The internal balance

During the 2007-08 election campaigning, Vladimir Putin had insisted that the premiership had perfectly adequate powers and that there would be no need to create new ones; while Medvedev had insisted that he was deeply opposed to the creation of a parliamentary republic and favoured a strong presidency. There was no indication that either would cede authority to the other, although both repeatedly committed themselves to a political partnership based on the experience of working together and trust.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Russia politics and society:

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars"
(5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky, "After Putin" (21 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski"
Vladimir Putin for ever
(2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian, "Russia: seeds of change"
(20 November 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski,
"The future is ours: Russia's youth activists in dialogue" (19 January 2008)

George Schöpflin, "The new Russia: a model state"
(27 February 2008)

Nicolai N Petro, "The Medvedev moment"
(28 February 2008)

Andrew Wilson, "Russia's post-election balance"
(3 March 2008)

Mary Dejevsky, "How to help Russia's democrats?"
(11 March 2008) With the new dyarchy, Russia was entering uncharted constitutional territory. A duumvirate does not necessarily entail dual power. The balance of power between the president and prime minister had clearly changed, in three respects.

First, Putin enjoyed unprecedented popularity and prestige. However, this no doubt was a wasting asset, since as the manager of the economy he would be held responsible for economic and social problems. He would also be vulnerable as energy and other utility prices rose, and indeed, if world energy prices fell.

Second, the bureaucracy owed its loyalty to Putin. Already, in the interregnum between December 2007 and May 2008, experienced presidential staff drifted from the Kremlin to the White House (the seat of the government).

Third, the presence of a constitutional majority (with around 70% of the seats) in the Duma that owed loyalty not to Medvedev but to Putin was a powerful check on presidential power. United Russia enjoyed an even greater base of support in regional assemblies, and thus the proportion of representatives enjoyed by the party in the federation council was even greater than in the Duma. Thus the federal assembly provided Putin with a powerful independent political base. It was unlikely that this majority would adopt constitutional amendments, let alone ones counter to Medvedev's wishes, but in the eventuality of such a clash the presidential veto could be overridden by a three-quarters vote in the federation council and two-thirds of the Duma.

The power-gap

It is unclear what political scope Medvedev has to restructure the political elite. In principle, he would be able to dismiss Igor Sechin and other Putinite members of the presidential administration, but it would be harder to change ministers like Nikolai Patrushev at the head of the FSB. These two were part of the core system on which the informal system of power rested.

Medvedev could consolidate his power in one of two ways. The first is to advance his people to key positions in the heartland of the para-constitutional system, in the presidential administration, the security agencies and the government. The problem here is that Medvedev does not have an extensive team of his own, and what he does have in part overlaps with Putin's. The only constituency that came to him naturally were the remnants of Boris Yeltsin's family.

The second is to appeal to democratic and legal principles, above all to restrict the scope of the para-constitutional order and to fill constitutional institutions, including the party system and parliament, with real political content and weight. The major challenge for Medvedev is to reduce the manual management of political processes, and allow greater spontaneity to the political process. This would endow public politics with new life, and allow parliament could once again to become the main forum for public debate.

The Medvedev presidency - which formally begins with the inauguration ceremony, including his acceptance speech, on 7 May 2008 - offers the opportunity to close the gap between the formal constitutional order and the covert battle of the factions. As has been argued, these two systems exist in parallel, with the informal factional networks subverting the autonomous operation of the open system of public politics. If the two systems could be integrated, with the emphasis in favour of public politics, then it will be time to begin to talk of the transcendence of regime politics in Russia and the onset of an era of constitutional governance. There is a long way to go before this can be achieved, and there is no guarantee that Medvedev will be able to accomplish such a transformation. The condition of his success will be to move gradually, and this makes unlikely any dramatic changes in the near future.

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