President-elect Dmitriy Medvedev continued to sound liberal themes last week, telling an a forum devoted to the Internet held in Gorky-10 outside Moscow on April 3 that the answer to “the delicate question of the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility” in cyberspace “is fairly simple: laws must be respected everywhere . . . at the same time, the state should take a calm, fair position” towards Internet users.
Medvedev’s comments may have assuaged the fears of some of the growing number of Russians who surf the Web and who may have been concerned over signs that the authorities are looking at the one Russian medium that has remained largely free from official interference. These signs include the recent closures of several regional Internet sites that were critical of the authorities. Moreover, Vladimir Slutsker, a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, introduced legislation in February that would force domestic websites with more than 1,000 daily visitors to register as media outlets and thereby make them subject to the same regulations as other media, including the restrictive law on extremism (Reuters, April 3). It is also worth noting that Medvedev reportedly scuttled plans to include the Internet in legislation expanding the number of sectors of the Russian economy deemed “strategically significant to national security” and thus subject to limitations on foreign investment (Vremya Novostei, March 17).
Medvedev’s position on the rights and responsibilities of Internet users follows a series of speeches in which he called for, among other things, fighting corruption, strengthening Russian courts, reducing administrative and bureaucratic barriers in the Russian economy, lowering taxes and assisting the small business sector. He even went so far as to declare that “freedom is better than non-freedom.”
Yet despite this ringing endorsement of freedom, Medvedev, as Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center recently wrote, “has not touched on any of the many recent cases involving the issues of freedom or democracy, including repeated harassment and detention of liberal-leaning political activists” (Washington Post, March 26).
Nor have Medvedev’s speeches included any references to a need to change Russia’s political system–to reform its highly centralized structure and redress its lack of checks and balances. This, according to some observers, is a crucial–and perhaps fatal–deficiency that will undermine Medvedev’s apparent plans for a kind of post-Putin “thaw” (assuming that what he has been saying in his speeches is sincere and not simply part of a PR campaign).
“To be a supporter of freedom and not non-freedom is easy and nice,” wrote Novaya Gazeta’s Kirill Rogov. “To support small business is popular. To be a supporter of the development of institutions and innovations is progressive. And to be a supporter of establishing a strict legal order is simply a rule of political decency. The problem isn’t Mr. Medvedev’s sincerity; the problem is that all of these issues (up to and including innovation), lie, unfortunately, outside the areas of his competence. Owing to the peculiarities of Russia’s development over the past decade, all of these issues can be resolved only on the basis political and not bureaucratic reforms.”
According to Rogov, the problems that Medvedev has outlined in his speeches can be remedied only through a redistribution of political power. “Independent administration of justice and a strict legal order are needed by those who cannot protect their interests on the basis of the current order, not by those who possess the whole arsenal of means and practices that substitute for a legal order, including bought judges, prosecutors, OMON and parliamentary credentials, or a direct telephone line to [Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav] Surkov or [Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Igor] Sechin,” he wrote. “Establishing a legal order in today’s Russia will hardly be accomplished as a result of someone’s good will.”
What is required to put Russia on the path to becoming a law-governed state, wrote Rogov, is not “the magical tambourine of the latest successor” but freedom of the press and a “genuinely elected and functioning parliament.” Put more generally, what is needed is “the kind of redistribution and dispersal of political power under which the strengthening of institutions and the independent administration of justice will become a need for all participants in the process,” he wrote. And the ultimate test of whether Russia has truly reached that point, Rogov concluded, was when a Russian President would be put on trial–or, at least, when doing so became genuinely possible (Novaya Gazeta, April 3).