Russian history is always open to interpretation but it takes a brave effort to draw from it a lesson that “freedom cannot be postponed until later and we must not be afraid that a free individual may make an inadequate use of a personal freedom. That path leads to a dead end.” It is not a desperate liberal striving to break the shackles of authoritarian control that advanced such a proposition but President Dmitry Medvedev speaking at a conference in St. Petersburg last Thursday (RIA Novosti, March 3). The theme of the conference was the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Russia, which is widely discussed by the liberal media and in the blogosphere but had been ignored by the official propaganda until the day when Medvedev set the tone (The New Times, February 21; www.besttoday.ru, February 19 – March 4). His take on the reform that propelled Russia towards a Europe of industrial capitalism and generated deadly domestic tensions is unreservedly affirmative leading to the conclusion that “we are continuing the course that was laid 150 years ago.”
The implied comparison with Alexander II can hardly boost Medvedev’s profile because the tsar known as “The Liberator” was able to drive his risky project through the resistance of landowners, while the present day “modernization” project is hopelessly stuck in the bureaucracy (Vedomosti, March 4). It is impossible, however, to miss the point that Medvedev delivered his speech exactly one year from the presidential elections effectively presenting his program for the second term (Moskovsky Komsomolets, RBC Daily, March 4). The philosophy of this program – and the details remain vague –directly contradicts the entrenched pattern of all-penetrating bureaucratic control, which in Medvedev’s words, cannot lead “to a victory over corruption but to its growth, not to the evolution of governance but to its degradation.” There is certainly no direct criticism of the counter-reformist and anti-freedom course executed in the previous decade under the leadership of Vladimir Putin but Medvedev charts a significant deviation from it (Vedomosti, March 4).
Putin’s response did not take long to come, and last Friday he presided over the conference of the nominally ruling United Russia party in Bryansk praising its role as “the cornerstone of Russia’s political and economic stability.” No efforts could be spared in preserving this achievement, so the key point of the speech was the promise to increase the salaries for public sector employees more than the 6.5 percent envisaged in the budget, to raise pensions and student stipends, and to double the income of young officers (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 5). In the three hour long Q-&-A session, he demonstrated keen attention to every local problem and cracked trademark jokes, for instance reminding an attractive “business-lady” not to neglect her duties related to solving the demographic problem (Kommersant, March 5). Such a performance might appear a tired recycling of the past PR stand-ups but Putin knows that it is exactly what a major part of the over-grown bureaucracy wants to hear instead of demands for cutting down their controls and appetites (www.gazeta.ru, March 3).
Medvedev’s claim to champion “modernization” is patently weak, and his unannounced but bashfully expressed desire to stay for the second term (constitutionally extended to six years) appeals only to a small circle of aides and entrepreneurs, who seek to profit from state funding of “innovations.” A large and growing part of the elite may be tired of Putin’s “manual management” and vulgar humor but they cannot see Medvedev as a credible alternative (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 2). Every time he tries to take a stand on a particular issue, it invariably turns against him, like for instance the diffident acknowledgement of the “irreconcilable” opposition resulting in the swift punishment for Boris Nemtsov and several other protesters thrown behind bars on flimsy charges. Medvedev’s persistent plea for upholding the rule of law and independence of the courts is severely compromised by the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, which continues to produce a strong public resonance (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, March 4). Even the eager engagement in foreign policy does not necessarily work in his favor leading to provocative conjectures that the West, and the US administration in particular, would prefer to deal with Medvedev as the more pliable leader (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 4).
The disconnect between Medvedev’s freedom-and-reform discourse and the reality of over-managed quasi-democracy and economic stagnation is striking but that does not mean that his rhetoric has no impact (Novaya Gazeta, March 4). There is undeniable truth in his argument that the Russian state “cannot be kept together by tightened screws,” and while it cannot add credibility to his bid for the leadership, Putin’s command-and-control system of power is incrementally undermined. What gives the word “freedom” far more power than Medvedev could possibly hope for is the emergence of an “arc of revolutions” from Morocco to Bahrain, inside which every despotic ruler is discovering the diminishing appeal of stability for the formerly “loyal subjects” who have suddenly lost their fear. Russia is certainly a very different kind of petro-state than Saudi Arabia but it does not take an Arab to feel that shameless corruption of the rulers is an insult to the people who earn their living (Novaya Gazeta, March 1).
There is a particular irony in the situation where every step Medvedev takes to show his ability to lead in fact diminishes his chances for securing an extension of his contract because Putin would definitely not want to see in the position of formally superior power a person who might entertain ambitions about actually using it. An option with pulling a joker out of his sleeve could answer Putin’s interpretation of politics as a sequence of “special operations,” but his firm steering of the United Russia apparatus towards a congress in September that would unanimously approve his electoral platform indicates that big surprises are not in the cards. His political instinct should warn him against experiments in the time of turmoil but he is confident in the capacity of his political machine to secure the pre-ordered outcome in the elections. Putin is probably right in that but it only means that the moment of freedom will come through a different expression of people’s power.