Medvedev pitches economic – but not political – changes for Russia
In a state-of-the-nation speech Thursday, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev reviewed his own pet economic innovations but didn't criticize the tightly controlled political edifice
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"But he's being very timid, not coming out and saying what's needed. Even if Medvedev has a different vision of modernization, one that would change the present system, in which all basic institutions have become emasculated, he is not standing up for it in an unambiguous way," she says.
From Peter the Great to the Bolsheviks
The word "modernization" has deeply vexed echoes in Russia, which for much of its history has been trying to catch up with a more sophisticated and technologically capable West. But past efforts have invariably boiled down to utilizing raw state power to drive Russians into the future. Three centuries ago, czar Peter the Great visited Holland and England, where he earnestly imbibed modern shipbuilding and other techniques. But he rejected the fledgling democracy he found in the West and imposed tougher autocratic controls when he returned home.
In the 20th century, the Bolsheviks found an ideological formula that combined accelerated urbanization, mass education, and industrialization with what was, perhaps, the most profoundly authoritarian political system the world has known.
"We cannot revisit past modernizations," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an independent journalist and Putin biographer. "This is a post-industrial era, and we need information freedom and political democratization. But Medvedev does not have freedom of action. He wants to behave like the president, but in fact he's acting like a very dependent person."
Medvedev not making tough calls
Despite public opinion polls and a near universal expert consensus that Russia's Putin-era "managed democracy" has become little more than a facade through which the Kremlin manipulates electoral results, Medvedev suggested no significant democratic reforms in his speech Thursday.
"We need a multiparty system, and we do have such a system," he said. "The political parties we have in Russia today have stood the test of time.... Any attempts to rock the situation with democratic slogans, to destabilize the state and split society, will be stopped. The law is one and for all – for ruling parties and those in opposition. Freedom means responsibility," he added.
Experts say Medvedev's campaign against backwardness, corruption, and bureaucratic sloth, for all its pro-democracy rhetoric, risks becoming yet another state-led effort that ends up running into the sands like so many before it.
"People inside the presidential administration think of modernization only as liberalization in the economic sphere," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist with the Institute of Contemporary Development, an influential Moscow think tank.