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Do Gorbachev’s clothes fit Medvedev?

Dmitri Travin
14 September 2009

The morning of the 10th September began with a sensation on the Russian Internet. At around 10 a.m., the popular democratic net publication http://www.gazeta.ru/, which often makes harsh criticism of the Kremlin and provides space for commentary to the most radical opposition members, posted an article by Dmitry Medvedev entitled "Forward, Russia!"

No one in the journalist world seemed to have had any warning that Medvedev would be gripped with a "sudden passion" to write. There was no mention in the morning papers that the article was going to come out. But several Internet publications immediately reacted, and also posted the article on their sites. Its appearance was picked up soon afterwards by the democratic radio station "Ekho Moskvy".

The most surprising thing was that Medvedev's article was only posted on the official presidential site http://www.kremlin.ru/ at midday. All this combined to make it look as if the appearance of the text on the Internet was spontaneous, which gave an aura of sincerity to Medvedev's address to Russian citizens.

But what was behind all this? What did the text actually contain?

As I am finishing a book about the history of Russian reforms since the time of Mikhail Gorbachev (since the mid-1980s) at the moment, it all felt very familiar.  It was as if I'd suddenly gone back a quarter of a century, to the time of my youth, of naïve hopes, empty shops and the rusting iron curtain.

I don't know whether the similarities are obvious to young Russians, who don't remember the events of 1985 very clearly, or to my contemporaries, for whom the events are not fresh in their minds. But it seemed to me that Medvedev's text might almost have been written at the time of Gorbachev's perestroika.

I should remind you that it was then that the leader of the Soviet Communists Mikhail Gorbachev began tentatively to undermine the system that had existed since Lenin's day, and remove conservatives from the political leadership of the USSR. In 1985, it seemed that he was only trying to improve the effectiveness of the Soviet system, while with every year changes took place which turned this system into its opposite - into a society with elements of a market and democracy.

But let us return to Medvedev. The first important point his article makes is to admit that mistakes have been made. This is a cautious affirmation, one that does not undermine the foundations of the system. Medvedev points out the problems that have been revealed by the crisis, the "drop in production that is greater that in other economies (my italics - DT) during the present crisis. The excessive fluctuations of the stock exchange. All this proves," the Russian president concludes, "that we certainly did not do everything that was necessary in previous years. And we certainly did not do everything correctly."

Many Russian readers probably did not realize that in saying this he was taking issue directly with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with the report of the Russian government on results of activity for 2009. Putin, who presented the report at the Duma on the 6th of April, declared: "A severe slump is being experienced by practically all industries of the world economy. In some places, things are better, in some they are worse, but on the whole the situation in the Russian economy is fundamentally no different (my italics - DT) from world tendencies".

In Russia, official Kremlin propagandists constantly emphasize the fact that Medvedev is Putin's successor to the position of president, that he is his younger comrade, and that there can be no disagreements between the two leaders. However, Medvedev's article demolished this notion. And significantly, this is taking happening thanks to an initiative taken by the president himself, and not during a press conference or interview, when things might get said in the heat of the moment which shouldn't have been.

Medvedev is not setting out to confront Putin directly. But at the start of perestroika Gorbachev did not directly oppose his predecessors, either. He was giving the Soviet intellectuals, who were used to picking up on Aesopian allusions, the chance to fill in the blanks for themselves.

Medvedev not only discussed the economy in his article, but also political problems. He noted that "democratic institutions have on the whole been formed and stabilized, but their quality is very far from ideal". This also looks like an attack on Putin, who - even if ironically - in one interview called himself such an absolute and pure democrat that since the death of Mahatma Gandhi he did not even have anyone to talk to.

Medvedev's assessment of the state of Russian democracy is very similar to the early theses of Gorbachev, who showed his confidence in the correctness of the socialist democracy, but proposed to strengthen it. In the spirit of Lenin, so to speak.

Medvedev is essentially saying directly that in future, Russia must move to a parliamentary democracy, where the "leaders in the political struggle will be parliamentary parties which regularly replace each other in power". He is practically repeating the theses of the democratic opposition. But where this is something that  the opposition wants to happen today, for Medvedev it is a task for the future. For the moment, according to the president, we must be satisfied with the fact that "political parties have received fresh opportunities to influence the formation of executive power in federation regions and municipalities".

We should remember that under Gorbachev, democratization also began in 1988-89 with the construction of a very unusual system, in which elections were not actually equal, secret and direct, as is customary in modern democracies. That is to say, Gorbachev was prepared to experiment with democratization, but he was afraid to start building a real democracy right now.

It is characteristic that Medvedev is categorical about one thing: we cannot return to the "democratic 1990s". In this, he agrees with Putin, who in recent years has said again and again that in the 1990s capitalism established itself in the country under the guise of democracy, serving its own selfish interests, and also those of its foreign (primarily American) sponsors. Medvedev does not dare to make a drastic break with his older comrade.

In Gorbachev's early years, he too rejected a return to capitalist democracy. The feeling was: why should we move backwards? We will do everything better than under capitalism, we will build socialism with a human face.

Another feature very characteristic of Medvedev is the way he declares a new way of thinking in international relations. He talks of the need for rapprochement with western democracies, something that Putin has not discussed seriously for many years. Medvedev also stresses that "petulance, arrogance, insecurity, mistrust and especially hostility must be eliminated from Russia's relations with leading democratic countries".

As Vladimir Putin has essentially been responsible for creating the parameters of Russian foreign policy since 2000, and foreign ministers have simply been the obedient followers of his policy, words about petulance and arrogance can only apply to Putin. And indeed, some Russian analysts have noted that Putin's behaviour betrays the marks of his difficult childhood, and his unwillingness to forgive insults by other boys, a subject I have written about in detail for openDemocracy.

Another view of Medvedev's: "We must be able to interest partners, and involve them in joint activity. And if we need to change something in ourselves, get rid of prejudices and illusions, in order to be able to do so, and then we must do so." In the mid-1980s, the idea of the need to change something in ourselves was first expressed not by Gorbachev, but by Boris Yeltsin in his speech in the 27th Communist party congress.  This was very much in the spirit of Gorbachev's perestroika.

Now let us try to compare the specific picture of the changes which Medvedev is now announcing with the changes Gorbachev was announcing a quarter of a century ago.

Right at the start of perestroika in the USSR, the issue of combating drunkenness came up. Quite recently, it came up once again, and Medvedev gives it pride of place in his article. Under Gorbachev, the war on drunkenness was virtually the only large-scale campaign of his first two years in power.

But there is also another important similarity between Medvedev's approach and that adopted under perestroika. People do not remember that well today that along with the anti-alcohol campaign, the head of the Soviet government Nikolai Ryzhkov did his best to speed up socio-economic development. And the way being proposed was by developing machine-building, i.e. through technology alone. It was only in June 1987 that the issue of changing the economic system was raised. Before that what we mainly heard about was the wonderful breakthroughs that would be achieved by advanced technology combined with sober workers.

And now Medvedev has outlined the five strategic vectors of economic modernization. Typically, he says nothing about the issues that are being discussed by economists. Medvedev, as a new-wave technocrat, simply paints a picture of a bright future where Russia will become a leading country in all key spheres of high technology: new types of fuel, nuclear technology, information technology, advanced satellites, and breakthrough in creating medical equipment. But how are we going to achieve all this, given the raw materials focus of the country, and our dependence on world oil prices, which I have written about in detail in another of my articles? Medvedev does not offer us any insightful discussion about this.

As we may recall, in the 1980s Gorbachev meant to raise Russian automobile construction to a world level by developing the Volga automobile factory (VAZ), without any foreign investments and equipment. To this day, VAZ produces very poor cars that are inferior to western models. Medvedev also forgets about the poor quality of the automobile industry, and immediately talks about more advanced technology.

And in conclusion. How did Soviet citizens see the structure of society during the time of perestroika? On the one hand, there were supporters of perestroika, and on the other there were opponents. This naïve approach pitted good against evil on different sides of the barricades. All the officials and appratchiks were declared to be opponents of perestroika, and the entire people headed by Gorbachev were declared to be supporters.

What does Medvedev write? "People will try to interfere with our work. Influential groups of corrupt officials and "entrepreneurs" who do not engage in any actual enterprise." Once more, we can see an attempt by the political leader to identify himself with the people, and marginalize his opponents.

Even yesterday it was perhaps still hard to imagine to what extent Medvedev would strive to copy Gorbachev's path. He was afraid to oppose Putin, and only took symbolic steps to consolidate his popularity in intellectual circles - a subject I have also written about for openDemocracy.

But today Medvedev's intentions are clear. There is, however, one important differrence between the positions of the two men. Gorbachev was put forward by the Soviet leader Yury Andropov, who was the head of the KGB for a long time.  Gorbachev only became the leader when Andropov died. There was nothing to stop him from breaking with the policy of his dead predecessor. But Medvedev rules Russia in tandem with Putin. How can policy be changed in this situation?

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