Struggling to climb out from under the shadow of Vladimir Putin, his still-powerful mentor and predecessor, President Dmitry Medvedev pitched his signature idea of "democratic modernization" Thursday to an audience that included Russia's joint houses of parliament, top government leaders, and a stony-faced Prime Minister Putin.
In a nearly two-hour "State of the Nation" address, his second since being vaulted into the Kremlin after a meticulously stage-managed election last year, Mr. Medvedev called for sweeping reforms to Russia's economy and offered an almost wonky review of his own pet innovations – including broadband Internet access for schools and reducing the number of time zones in Russia – but pulled up short at any suggestion of dismantling the highly centralized and tightly controlled political edifice built by Mr. Putin.
"In the 21st century the country again needs an all-embracing modernization and this will be our first experience in modernization based on the values and institutions of democracy," Medvedev said. "Instead of an archaic society, where leaders think and decide for everyone, we will become a society that is intelligent, free, and responsible."
Seeking support for sidelining Putin?
Some experts say this kind of rhetoric may be an attempt to rally public support for a break with former president Putin, who most believe remains the country's most powerful figure. In Forbes magazine's list of the world's most powerful people, Putin comes third after the leaders of the US and China, while Medvedev's name appears far down the list, just above Oprah Winfrey. According to Denis Volkov, a researcher with the independent Levada Center in Moscow, just 20 percent of Russians polled in September thought that Medvedev was in charge of Russian policymaking – his constitutional role – while a whopping 67 percent believe he is dominated by Putin.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a top expert on Russia's elite, says that by her calculations Putin's supporters include "71 percent of all regional leaders and 70 percent of Duma deputies.... Out of 75 key posts, only two people are Medvedev's. Putin left his team in all key positions, and Medvedev is reluctant to try and change them," she says. "For the moment, they live peacefully. Medvedev is not advancing and Putin is not retreating."
This, perhaps, explains the odd combination of radical bombast and cautious prescriptions in Medvedev's big speech Thursday, say experts.
"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.
In his speech, Medvedev proposed privatizing many companies that were acquired by the state during the Putin years, and argued that Russia must wean its economy from dependence on exports of oil and other raw materials.
"There are many good ideas, but it's impossible to have any real economic modernization without democratization in the widest sense," says Mr. Gontmakher.
While both Putin and Medvedev have repeatedly asserted that their "tandem" partnership at Russia's helm is working well, experts have long predicted a falling out. Yet many experts say the widespread view that they represent two separate visions for Russia is far too simplistic, and that the appearance of differences between them are more of the "good cop, bad cop" variety.
"Putin and Medvedev take all major decisions jointly," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Both demonstrate, in many ways, that this arrangement suits them."
However, in a country that has long been accustomed to a single powerful personage at the summit of power, having two leading personalities is disconcerting. A poll cited in the Moscow daily Vremya Novostei this month found that 60 percent of Russians prefer to have one strong leader, while just 29 percent thought democracy is better. For Medvedev, who holds near absolute powers under Russia's constitution, the problem of defining himself against Putin has led him in recent months to court liberals, start his own blog, and launch a campaign to crack down on Russia's age-old scourge of alcoholism.
"People around Medvedev are getting impatient," says Ms. Lipman. "He's been in power for one-third of his term, and they want to expand their authority. This is a factor not to be ignored."
Other political forces are pressing Medvedev to assert himself. They include the leader of Russia's Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who last week said he was "eager to support the president if he ever decides to go on a real, rather than a declarative, struggle for those principles that he stands for."
The truth may only become known when the Kremlin announces who will stand as the establishment candidate for president in the next elections, slated for 2012. Constitutional changes introduced last year extended presidential terms and could enable Putin to return.
"Putin and Medvedev don't have to clash, but they do have to sort out who's going to be the next president," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-connected political consultant. "Medvedev needs to produce some visible results of his presidency. Otherwise the result may be a political crisis and Putin's return," to the Kremlin, he says.