An interesting feature of President Dmitry Medvedev’s trademark idea of “modernization” is that each time it starts to work, he feels compelled to push the brakes and engage in back-pedaling, and once Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, intercepts the initiative, Medvedev tries to add spin to his discourse. What has caught him off-balance in recent weeks is the proposal from the European Union to develop “Partnership for Modernization” as a possible way out of the deadlocked negotiations on the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 5). Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, elaborated on this proposal while visiting Moscow last week, and Medvedev confirmed his positive attitude mentioning that “we need to create conditions so that business can operate normally.”
What he really wants to discuss is Western participation in his dream-center for creating innovations, often called a Russian Silicon Valley, and other practical matters pertinent to the import and dissemination of modern technologies (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 24). The EU, however, stays on the message that the emphasis on the rule of law is a practical matter and not simply a continuation of sterile debates on values, because investors are wary of the commercial climate, which shows few signs of “warming.” The issue that is seen as crucial is corruption, and the Swedes are suggesting making the business practice of IKEA, which shows zero tolerance to the culture of bribes and otkat (kickbacks), into a model Russian-European code of conduct (Kommersant, RBC Daily, March 10).
Medvedev has been temporizing with traditional “in principle, yes” non-answers, when the US State Department Human Rights Report asserted that “corruption was widespread throughout the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at all levels of government” (www.newsru.com, March 11). An instant and indignant response by the Russian political class proved typically Soviet, as if Mikhail Gorbachev did not set perestroika in motion exactly 25 years ago. The foreign ministry issued a statement alleging that “It is no secret that this opus is primarily intended to solve the internal political problems of the American establishment” (RIA Novosti, March 12). Parliamentarians and spin-doctors have rushed to accuse Washington of malicious bias that undermines the progress of the “reset” and puts pressure on Moscow in order to secure concessions in contentious negotiations (www.newsru.com, March 12).
The report covered a broad range of issues, but as far as corruption is concerned, many Russians would argue that it underestimates the scope of this economic disaster and social ill – and would rather agree with the assessment of Transparency International that puts Russia 146 out of 180 countries, together with Sierra-Leone and Zimbabwe (Corruption Perception Index 2009). Resentment against this intrinsic feature of the bureaucratic machine built by Putin is climbing to new heights, and the popular rock-star, Yuri Shevchuk, started his recent concert by saying: “corruption is everywhere… brutal anti-human power has built a system in our country” (www.gazeta.ru, March 11). His words, concerning the unfairly persecuted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and police violence, exploded all over the country via the uncontrollable YouTube.
It is exactly the mistrust and anger against the various law enforcement agencies, ranging from traffic police to the Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliev, which has become the most visible part of the brewing discontent. Every week brings several new outrageous police crime scandals, and even TV news bulletins that traditionally open with information about the president’s activities now often first announce this type of news (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 12). In Moscow, and other major cities, the internet has become a major vehicle of public mobilization, and Medvedev, who typically starts his day by surfing the internet, feels compelled to respond by taking the more sensitive investigations under his personal control. Still, his attempt to launch a meaningful reform of the multi-functional interior ministry lacks both a sound plan and funding, consequently an opinion poll by Ekho Moskvy (12 March) showed that more than 90 percent of respondents believed that this reform had not yet started.
Public protests in various locations, from Kaliningrad to Irkutsk, typically gather only a few thousand participants, but the authorities dare not suppress these rallies, and their nervous readiness to make concessions encourages new action. Local elections –like those last Sunday– set a trap for governors, since Medvedev demands a reduction in blatant fraud, but the shrinking support for the quasi-ruling United Russia party makes crude manipulations necessary in order to secure “acceptable” results (Ekho Moskvy, March 12). Medvedev has rather ambivalent relations with this party of the ruling bureaucracy, which keeps Putin as its leader, and often finds opportunities to show his commitment to pluralism. Such pretensions are, however, of scant practical importance, since the three officially approved opposition parties are merely going through electoral motions never deviating far from the mainstream.
Medvedev tries to show his concern about social tensions by instructing Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Kozak, to investigate the sharp increases in housing and utility payments, adding that officials who ignore these issues would be looking for other jobs (www.newsru.com, March 12). It is hard for him to compete in this field with Putin, who excels in the “father-of-the-nation” role and has recently ordered an increase to pensions by 6.3 percent from April 1, despite objections from the Finance Minister, Aleksei Kudrin (Vedomosti, March 5). Such populist gestures cannot, however, arrest the trend of escalation of social inequality, and millions of Russians are irked by the fact that the number of dollar-billionaires in the country doubled in 2009 (Vremya Novostei, March 12).
Replacing governors and firing generals, Medvedev cannot recast himself as a tough leader, and his performance as “technical innovator” or “people’s protector” is also far from convincing. The only matter that really engages his interest, if not ardor, is reforming the legal system, so the emphasis placed by the EU on cultivating a partnership in the rule of law area connects with this personal priority. The problem is that Putin’s system of bureaucratic control is not compatible with independent courts or prosecution of corruption, but Medvedev would never go as far as dismantling this system, seeking instead merely its “modernization.” Even Gorbachev is disappointed and admonishes that “fear is a poor counsel in politics” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 12).