The Medvedev moment

Nicolai N Petro
28 February 2008

Those seeking to categorise Dmitry Medvedev, the presumptive next president of Russia, have quickly settled into two camps: pessimists, who dismiss him as a puppet of Vladimir Putin, and optimists, who cling to the slim hope that he might someday develop his own agenda.

Nicolai N Petro teaches international politics at the University of Rhode Island. He served as the United States state department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under George HW Bush. His books include The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture(Harvard University Press, 1998) and Crafting Democracy: How Novgorod Has Coped with Rapid Social Change (Cornell University Press, 2004).

He writes an occasional blog devoted to Russian affairs at OpEdNews.com. His website is here

Also by Nicolai N Petro in openDemocracy:

"Russia through the looking-glass" (13 February 2006)

"Russian democracy: a reply to Mischa Gabowitsch" (24 February 2006)

A careful reading of his more than 2,000 public pronouncements over the past seven years, however, suggests that neither of these descriptions is accurate. His record suggests that Medvedev - after the presidential election of 2 March 2008 and the transfer of power in May - will indeed pursue a concerted liberalisation of Russian politics: but as the next logical stage in the strategy of democratic modernisation known as the "Putin plan", rather than as an alternative to it.

A liberal project

A law professor by training, Dmitry Medvedev was initially put in charge of judicial reform. In just four years he managed to eliminate most of the local laws that contradicted the Russian constitution, spearhead the introduction of a new criminal code, a juvenile-justice system, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and a nationwide system of bailiffs.

His later responsibilities included supervision of four new "priority national projects" (PNPs): in healthcare, education, housing, and agriculture. Yet he continued to take an active interest in legal reforms, promoting a new nationwide network of free legal-support centres and overseeing the liberalisation of governmental policy on immigration.

By some accounts, it was the experience of trying to reform the cumbersome Soviet legal system that led Medvedev to formulate a simple economic credo: "If government participation is not essential, then the government should not be involved."

For Medvedev, the state has only two positive economic obligations: to assist Russian companies become more globally competitive, and to combat poverty. Beyond that, he says - sounding at times like a supply-side economist - government may legitimately collect only two kinds of taxes: those needed for the functioning of the state, and those that will make business in Russia the most profitable in the world.

The solutions Medvedev has proposed to Russia's social problems repeatedly reflect his clear preference for market-based solutions. He has forced regions to compete with each other for federal funding. In education, healthcare, and pension reform he has championed the idea that government funding ought to follow individuals rather than institutions. He lobbied hard for, and finally won, changes in the law that allow universities to set up their own small businesses, and create endowments to ensure funding independent from the state.

Moreover, even when the state retains control of a corporation, Medvedev has insisted that it be reconstituted as a public company, and forced to compete globally for private investment. His model is Gazprom, where he has served as chairman of the board (apart from a one-year period as deputy chairman) since 2000. Its capitalisation has increased fifty-fold over the past seven years, and he now proposes doing the same with other state corporations in order to attract one trillion dollars of new investment into Russia's decaying infrastructure.

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

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (2 May 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

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" (26 February 2008) Dmitry Medvedev's approach to civil society is likewise suffused by market and legal terminology. He has described the relationship between government and civil society as a contract, which government "offers" to civil society in the form of specific national priorities. If that offer is accepted, the results will be positive, and if not it must be changed. Civil society, he says, serves admirably "to prevent idiotic excesses" by the government.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must play a key role in any truly vibrant civil society, which is why Medvedev insists that every level of government in Russia must "absolutely use the experience of NGOs and public organisations which, among other things, have learned to control their expenses better than government." Government officials need to set up a stable system of "direct and permanent contacts with NGOs." Without such feedback, he says, "the government is blind and winds up working only for itself."

To encourage the growth of NGOs, he has pushed through new legislation supporting business philanthropy, and given tax exemptions to businesses that support NGOs. Charities, he points out, not only do good works, they also serve "as a serious medicine against dependency and paternalism, which we have historically been disposed to."

Other notable Medvedev initiatives include: independent public television, an independent judiciary, and parliamentary oversight of the executive branch. In contrast to Putin, he has said that future presidents of Russia ought to be members of a political party, and that strong political parties are "the only way of making politicians accountable for their ideas."

Medvedev too has reached out to Russia's business community in the effort to make them more involved in policymaking. He has created a council of experts to help generate new ideas for the priority national projects. His policy of "mutual interpenetration" of business and government is a striking contrast to Putin's "equidistant removal" of major business interests from government.

Medvedev's most recent campaign speeches have been consistent with his past record. He has proposed a new national television channel dedicated to legal education, "aggressive" support for business, the shift of a "significant" portion of local government functions to NGOs, a national plan to fighting bureaucracy, and tax exemptions for personal healthcare, education, and pension expenditures.

A partnership plan

Nowhere, however, is Dmitry Medvedev's pragmatic emphasis more evident than in foreign policy, where he invariably stresses areas where the west and Russia should be cooperating.

Russia will eventually obtain the world's respect "not through strength, but through responsible behavior and success", he says. Until then, he proposes that Europeans recall the history of the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community - distant forerunner of the European Union - and consider an "asset swap" with Russia that will guarantee energy security for the entire continent and promote "the best form of partnership."

An arrangement whereby Russian investment in refinery and distribution in Europe could be exchanged for European investment in oil-and-gas extraction in Russia would, says Medvedev, create a "virtuous cycle" that bolstered economic efficiency and security throughout the continent. "The Europeans say that we are putting them in a tight corner because they come to depend too much on deliveries of Russian gas. Let us exchange assets then, and we will be dependent on them too."

One likely leitmotif of Russian foreign policy under Medvedev is thus already apparent: security is enhanced when countries share risk. This model, moreover, can be extended to other areas: economic, political, and military.

A pivotal choice

It is tempting - especially for western observers - to regard liberal rhetoric and policy in Russia as a dramatic break with the past. Medvedev himself does not see it that way. His argument is that amid the chaos of the 1990s, the government had to concentrate on core tasks of responsible governance: re-establishing central authority, forging a "unified legal space," shoring up the domestic economy, liberating politics and the media from the control of oligarchs, and laying the foundations for an independent foreign policy. In all these areas, Medvedev not only agreed with Putin's policies - he played a key role in formulating them.

The openDemocracy network includes a new Russia section edited by Hugh Barnes; its articles include:

Lesley Chamberlain, "From Russia: the art of engagement" (30 January 2008)

Now that the situation in the country has stabilised, however, he feels that it is time to shift the focus from consolidation to liberalisation. If, during the past decade "screws were, perhaps, screwed on too tight," now they can be relaxed. The watchwords of Medvedev's approach to politics, both then and now, are "flexibility" and "pragmatism."

This perspective casts severe doubt on the conventional view of Medvedev as a lackey blindly carrying out Putin's bidding - but also on the notion that he will develop policies at odds with those that he has been carrying out over the past seven years.

Indeed, it appears that most foreign analysts have simply underestimated the Russian government's ability to conceive of and carry out its own strategy of democratic modernisation (the "Putin plan"), and also completely missed its purpose, which Medvedev described as: "an effective civil society composed of mature individuals ready for democracy." Gleb Pavlovsky Medvedev's long-time political advisor, says that the result of the west's ignorance and misunderstanding is that essentially it "slept through Russia's rebirth".

In this light, Medvedev's rise is a portent of the historic challenge that Russia's first truly post-Soviet generation is about to face: the creation of Russia's first truly liberal society.


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