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?

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
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.

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.

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.

Medvedev, who was Putin's handpicked successor, has talked a liberal game since arriving in the Kremlin 3 years ago, but has shown what activists here say is a disturbing inability to follow through on most of his pledges.

"It's long been known that there is a two-party system behind the walls of the Kremlin," says Mr. Yurgens. "One is the stability party, whose current chief is Putin, and the other is the progress party, with Medvedev at its head. Of course we hope this coming election cycle will bring these out into the open, and give people a chance to decide."

Putin on board with reform?

In something of a surprise, one of 21 "expert groups" ordered by Putin in January to draft post-crisis revisions to the Russian government's official "Strategy 2020" development program has come to similar conclusions. The group, from the Moscow Center of Conservative and Social Policy, briefed Putin earlier this week and presented their findings to the presidium of the State Duma on Thursday, according to Russian media.

In the outline of their report (in Russian) the group offers five future scenarios that range from preserving the status quo, to tightening authoritarian screws, to different paces of democratization. But the authors make clear that the "suppression of pluralism" under Putin has harmed Russia's development and the price of sticking with the status quo would be that "the system will degrade even more, and its ability to solve problems will decrease." Cracking down further could stimulate "protest moods (among the population)... and bring nationalist politicians or even criminals to power in the regions."

"All 21 of these expert groups were ordered to focus on different aspects of the economy, and not to broach political issues at all," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "What is most remarkable is that economists are now telling them that they need to deal with institutional change, and come up with a strategy for political reforms, or there will be no possibility to complete any economic ones."

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday denied that any limitations had been placed upon the expert groups, and cautioned that their findings were merely advisory and not expressions of government policy.

Or is talk of change just political maneuvering?

Critics argue that the think tank debates are for public consumption only and that Russia's direction remains firmly in the hands of entrenched interests – particularly state-owned or Kremlin-friendly oil, gas and metals giants – who abhor the idea of sweeping democratic change.

"This activity is happening because of the upcoming elections. Putin and Medvedev have detected that their popularity is dropping, and so they are ginning up a PR campaign," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chair of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin coalition.

According to a poll published by the independent Levada Center in Moscow this week, Putin's approval rating has sunk to a six-year low of 69 percent, while Medvedev's slumped to 66 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2008. While these findings may not sound at all dire to Western readers, such trends are taken very seriously in Russia's tightly-managed political culture, where trust in top leaders is considered synonymous with patriotism.

Mr. Nemtsov, whose United Freedom Party is currently struggling to obtain official registration, says proof of change will come only in practice and not in academic papers.

"Our goal is to get our party registered and choose a united opposition candidate for the upcoming presidential elections," he says. "If that isn't allowed to happen, it means there's no genuine political competition, and all this talk of change is unreal."

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