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Are Russia's recent hints of reform grounded in real change?

As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin position themselves for next year's election, Russians are seeing hints of future reform. Is it genuine, or political posturing?

By Correspondent / March 31, 2011

Young protesters attend a demonstration in busy Tverskaya street in Moscow, Thursday, March 31. Riot police in Moscow have forcefully detained about 25 protesters who unfurled an antigovernment banner at an unauthorized demonstration. Thursday's demonstration was the latest in a series of actions that Russian opposition figures call at the end of every month with 31 days.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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Moscow

For the past two years, a small band of pro-democracy activists has gathered at Moscow's downtown Triumph Square on the 31st of every month that has as many days. They brave beatings, arrests, and taunts from massed ranks of riot police to demand their right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed by Article 31 of Russia's Constitution.

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Permission for the rallies has routinely been denied, but lately Moscow authorities have been granting the "Strategy 31" group a permit to meet – including for Thursday's rally – albeit under very tight restrictions. Activists are mildly encouraged by the official change of heart and say they will broaden out their campaign to include a call for free and fair voting in legislative and presidential elections scheduled over the next year.

But a potentially far more momentous hint that change may be coming to Moscow came in recent days from the elite brain trusts that advise the two as-yet undeclared establishment candidates for next March's presidential polls, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Both leaders have sparred increasingly over policy issues and, experts say, both have been presented with separate studies warning that Russia's highly-centralized and authoritarian political system has become a suffocating obstacle to further economic progress, and that without sweeping political reforms the country faces possible breakdown or even Egyptian-style popular revolt.

"Society has understood the need for democratic change for some time, and we may hope that our leaders aren't more foolish that the people," says Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a human rights activist since the 1960s. "Who knows if it's true? We don't get many opportunities for a heart-to-heart dialogue with Putin or Medvedev, so we'll just continue demonstrating for our rights."

Russia's status quo 'has no future'

Earlier this month, the Moscow-based Institute for Contemporary Development (INSOR) – whose board is chaired by President Medvedev – issued a 95-page report which concludes starkly that the status quo designed by former President Putin "has no future. ... If Russia has not yet won the freedom to live, now it must take it in order to survive. And then, for the first time in history, we will have the chance to find out what this country is capable of."

Some Russia analysts have speculated that the INSOR study might be the first draft of Medvedev's coming election program and, if so, it could be a stirring wake-up call for Russia's beleaguered liberals and aspiring middle class, who've been politically marginalized and economically forgotten during the Putin years.

The report itemizes 120 measures that would revolutionize Russia, including a return to full political competition, a free and independent media, promoting the growth of civil society, severing Kremlin control over the judiciary, financial reform, dramatic action against corruption, and sweeping measures to foster small business and anchor middle class property rights.

"Just because Medvedev is associated with our institute doesn't mean that this is his program. It's not that simple," says Igor Yurgens, who heads the management board of INSOR. "Basically, we wanted to formulate these ideas so that they will be ready when the country needs them. When crisis strikes, it will be too late to do this thinking."

In the past decade under Putin and Medvedev, Russia has seen a sharp curtailment of political competition, a rise in accusations of Kremlin-orchestrated electoral fraud, a state takeover of major media outlets, an explosion of corruption, a crackdown on politically active civil society, and a string of unsolved murders of independent journalists and human rights activists.

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