President Dmitry Medvedev is today paying a very special visit to Germany in order to participate in celebrations that have more significance for contemporary Russia than he dares to admit. Twenty years ago he was a fresh graduate of the Leningrad University with some democratic ideas influenced by his Professor Anatoly Sobchak, but with little understanding of the spectacular breakthrough that happened in Berlin. This was not the case for his senior partner Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He was burning papers in the KGB office in Dresden, stealing a look at the unstoppable jubilant crowds from barred windows, and reflecting on the fact that the dream job he had landed a couple of years before had ended. The shock of the sudden collapse of a perfectly organized state so tightly controlled by his colleagues from the Stasi still determines his enmity to “color revolutions” (www.gazeta.ru, November 6). He has no reason to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in that he differs from Russian public opinion, which by a majority of 61 to 11 percent sees it as a positive influence (www.levada.ru, November 6).
On the other hand, 60 percent of Russians prefer to have a strong leader and only 29 percent express a preference for democratic government, while in 1991, the latter figure had reached 51 percent (Vremya Novostei, November 6). Putin thrives in the role of national macho/godfather, but Medvedev with his daily presence on television news undermines the integrity of his performance. Not that Medvedev is any more convincing in representing an alternative figure, but the very fact that the position of supreme power is occupied by this smooth-talking courtier compromises the ideal of tsarist leadership (www.grani.ru, November 2).
Moreover, Medvedev has chosen “modernization” as the main theme of his presidency, and this seemingly innocent slogan has led him to a slippery slope where one word leads to another, while deeds lag far behind. The breathtaking plunge into recession has made his argument concerning the over-reliance of the Russian economy upon the export of raw materials fairly trivial, but the gradual climb in oil prices has not eased Russia on to the recovery track, which proves that the problem runs deeper than simply petro-dependency. Medvedev tries to set guidelines for the priority development of high-technology sectors, though his instructions find no reflection in the 2010 budget, which prioritizes defense expenditures and pension increases, while only 1.4 percent of funding supports “innovations,” primarily in space programs (www.newsru.com, November 5). It is clear that modernization requires money that the state cannot provide, consequently Medvedev attempts to cultivate a business-friendly attitude, which remains entirely foreign to the predatory system of bureaucratic control (Ekspert, November 2).
The conclusion that the Byzantine political system built (or rather re-built) by Putin is incompatible with modernization appears both impossible and irrefutable. Medvedev dares not to utter one word of criticism directed at his co-ruler and waffles over the need to build a team of modernizers who could make at least a few innovations indeed happen (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30). However, he constantly spells out the proposition that the conveniently corrupt business-as-usual is over, and this message –hesitantly conveyed by the official media– gradually becomes a catalyst for the growing sense that a period of change has arrived yet again (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 3).
This perception gained more ground after Medvedev’s strong condemnation of Stalin’s crimes that appeared first on his video-blog and was then broadcast by all television channels. Insisting on re-examining the repressions, he went against the widespread desire to close those dark pages in Russian history and also challenged the tendency towards “rehabilitating” Stalin, which was carefully cultivated by Putin (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 2). This step signifies a risky departure from the policy of saying only things that people want to hear, since for large groups of “patriots” Medvedev has instantly become a “traitor.”
The divide within society over Soviet history connects directly with the splits on the way out of the current crisis, which were illustrated by the ambivalent celebrations of the November holidays. There were perhaps as many ultra-nationalist rallies as officially sponsored festivities on the recently established Day of National Unity, while the communists brought thousands to the streets on the Great Revolution Day. Still, a healthy 63 percent of respondents affirmed that they would celebrate neither day (www.levada.ru, October 29).
The rising momentum of change makes the political elites edgy about setting and switching their loyalties. The more Medvedev is trying to argue (as in a recent interview with Der Spiegel) that “today, there is no doubt that our tandem, as we are commonly referred to, is working rather coherently,” the more doubts arise about its future. Commentators and economic experts pondering the pseudo-liberal discourse and budgetary populism increasingly describe the situation inside the Kremlin as panic (Vedomosti, November 2; www.gazeta.ru, October 21).
In this turbulent environment, Putin wants to position himself as a “rock” of confidence standing against the ill-conceived “innovations,” asserting at every meeting of the government that “our plans are still alive and well, and they will continue and be completed. There is no doubt about it.” He can hardly fail to see, however, that time is not on his side, and the central question of the leadership acquires critical urgency well before the presidential elections in 2012. Medvedev might think that time is working for him, but re-inventing himself as a champion of change is an order much taller than his limited intentions, which he will present this week in an address to the parliament. He fancies “modernization” as an evolutionary and certainly non-violent process over which he would preside benevolently disallowing any “excesses.” The problem is that the strength of the thoroughly corrupt system of power to which Medvedev belongs entirely is in its rigidity. Thus, opening it up for transformation – even if only by words – could trigger a spontaneous collapse. The Berlin Wall is an object lesson in such a breakdown, and Medvedev may find himself to be merely the weakest part of the wall of fear and lies that Putin has built.