The address was timed to coincide with the election of Barak Obama as President of the United States. The reaction of this event in Russia might appear muted; but in fact the political-psychological impact of America’s choice hits at the very heart of Putin’s system of power, over which Medvedev now rather unconvincingly presides (www.gazeta.ru, November 6). The U.S. voters have embraced the notion of change which remains anathema for all who gathered to listen to Medvedev’s reassurances that their years of plenty were not numbered.
The main surprise in the address targeted exactly these worries about the idea of change that was thoughtfully elaborated in an article written in a Siberian labor camp by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most feared opponent of the ruling bureaucracy (Vedomosti, November 7). Professing stability, Medvedev suggested extending the presidential term to six years and parliamentary seats to five but gave no justification for this “revolutionary” proposal. What is most striking about it is its irrelevance, since the next Duma elections are not due until December 2011, and the power-holders are definitely not going to give the opposition any chance. The “innovation” might become relevant if Medvedev were to step down in the near future, paving the way for Putin to return to the Kremlin for six (or even twelve) years. It would hardly be a smart political move, however, to stage presidential elections in the middle of an economic crisis that is not expected to subside anytime soon (Moscow Echo, November 7).
The real significance of the initiative, which is certain to be approved by the compliant parliament, may in fact be that the 15-year-old taboo on changing the constitution is now lifted. Medvedev, who extensively praised the “cornerstone law” in his speech, will no longer be the “guarantor” of the constitution (as Putin liked to portray himself) but its “corrector” (www.gazeta.ru, 5 November). Dispelling all hopes for a political thaw, Medvedev still sought to preserve some credibility as a liberal reformer (Novaya gazeta, November 6). Some of his remarks had a familiar ring of Soviet propaganda (“our policies are based on an ideology that has people at its center”), but he also angrily condemned “the cult of the state” and corruption. Khodorkovsky could have subscribed to the point that “the state bureaucracy is the biggest employer, most active publisher, best producer, and is its own court, own political party, and ultimately its own people”; but Medvedev added a lawyer’s twist and earned no less than 56 rounds of applause from the cream of bureaucracy that he saw no reason whatsoever to worry about this criticism.
This insincere cheering could not dispel the challenge of Obama, as positive worldwide expectations about a renewal of U.S. leadership obliterate the convenient “aggressive imperialism” clichés. The only countermeasure Medvedev was able to invent was to fortify his address with an extra-large dose of anti-Americanism. The blame for “serious economic miscalculations” resulting in a global crisis and for “sponsoring” Georgia’s “barbaric attack” on South Ossetia was put squarely on Washington, with accusations of arrogance and double standards added for good measure. Medvedev reached the conclusion that “the world cannot be run from one capital.” There was nothing new in these philippics, which indicates that in essence Medvedev’s response to the idea of change is denial (www.gazeta.ru, November 7).
One practical step justified by this tired rhetoric was the threat to deploy an unspecified number of new Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region in order to neutralize the planned U.S. deployment of 10 interceptor-missiles in Poland. The leaders of France and Germany, which Medvedev counts as his allies, immediately expressed their opinion that he could not have chosen a worse moment for this bad idea (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 7). New missiles (promised for many years) would not necessarily increase the risk of an accidental or deliberate nuclear exchange in the heart of Europe, but they have already added to Russia’s image of militarization. The flow of news about Russian strategic bombers testing Norwegian and British air defenses, Russian nuclear cruisers traveling from Libya to Venezuela, and Russian tanks rolling into Georgia creates an impression of a muscular and reinvigorated power. In reality, the Russian Armed Forces are bedeviled with massive problems, as reflected in the fatal accident on the Nerpa nuclear submarine last Sunday (www.newsru.com, November 9). The planned reduction of the officer corps, which Medvedev did not mention in his speech, is hardly a part of the solution (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 31).
It is clear that the Russian leadership was caught unprepared by the global financial meltdown and cannot comprehend the deepening impact of the spectacular reversal of the upward trend in oil prices (www.grani.ru, November 7). Putin is obviously irritated by the situation in which he is not only losing some formal prerogatives of power but also control over economic processes that respond neither to administrative levers nor financial stimuli. His angry orders to the elites not to exploit the crisis for self-enrichment are being ignored, and his “national leader” balloon is deflating alarmingly fast. “Rallying around the flag” apparently reached its peak during the war in August, and now the panicking oligarchs, the sinking middle class, and the public are discovering that their “great helmsman” is lost at sea. The next thing they might start thinking about is change.