The rhetoric of renovation and reinvigoration cultivated by President Dmitry Medvedev has been severely curtailed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who presented to the State Duma last week the last report on the work of his government. He claimed full credit for the fact that “the national economy has made a post-crisis breakthrough” and asserted that Russia needed a decade of “steady, uninterrupted development” (Ekspert, April 20). What surprised most commentators of this lengthy speech loaded with figures was the resolute dismissal of the philosophy of modernization and the firm intention to lead “without sudden radical changes in course or ill thought through experiments based so often in either unjustified economic liberalism, or, on the other hand, social demagogy” (RIA Novosti, April 19; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). Perhaps particularly surprised are the members of expert working groups organized by Putin for revising the outdated Strategy-2020, who now discover that their far from radical suggestions “distract us from the general path of developing the country.”
Many commentators tend to interpret Putin’s marching orders as an electoral exercise aimed at asserting his leadership and consolidating public opinion behind the “more-of-the-same” course (www.newsru.com, April 21). The speech, however, had few catchy slogans and was delivered in a confident but boring manner, with many deviations from the text, for instance about the recent dent in the US credit rating, but hardly any aggressive energy that has been Putin’s electoral trademark. Generous promises were issued to every active social group, from students to pensioners and from teachers to lieutenants, but the picture was painted in so much rosy detail that the credibility of too many top priorities is inevitably eroded, while the feeling that there could not possibly be nearly enough money in the over-loaded budget is strengthening (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 23).
Putin’s blazing of the “general path” towards a rent-harvesting state grants Medvedev an opportunity to play up his discourse of innovations, and his aide Arkadiy Dvorkovich has found it opportune to clarify that modernization actually involves deep reforms of institutions and profound changes in the way of life, while denying any disagreements over economic strategy (RIA Novosti, April 22). Medvedev cannot be sure that the big idea of change is appealing to the self-serving bureaucracy and suspects that paternalistic attitudes are prevalent among the voters (Vedomosti, April 20; www.gazeta.ru, April 18). He tries to gain some extra ground for his platform every week with a bold statement or a fresh directive – only to see his symbolic gains erased by Putin’s complete disregard of his guidelines in the goal-setting report. Medvedev is also trapped in the implicit commitment to work for the electoral victory of United Russia, the quasi-party of bureaucrats that has little interest in delusions like political competition and remains Putin’s electoral machine, even if of dubious efficiency (Vedomosti, April 22).
One particular group of stake-holders in the regime reproduction that Medvedev tries to court is the big business leaders, who might indeed be tired of Putin’s short leash and prefer a more “liberal” environment. The day after his performance in the Duma, Putin gathered the top two dozen of the Russian Forbes list and informed them that Russia was in fact not out of the crisis since its GDP had not recovered to the peak level – but their fortunes did (RBC Daily, April 21). Expecting even a grain of gratitude for this targeted anti-crisis policy would have been naive, which Putin is certainly not, but subtly reminding them how deeply they are hated by the “have-nots” helps in focusing their minds on the need to rally around the leader who knows how to control the populace (Kommersant, www.gazeta.ru, April 22).
There is, however, a problem with this control that Putin mastered at the very start of his “era” by crushing independent TV and introducing propaganda instead of news analysis (Ekho Moskvy, April 14). New opinion polls show a steady decline in Putin’s and Medvedev’s approval ratings and a particularly clear rise of mistrust in the United Russia (Vedomosti, April 22). This may partly be a result of the fast growth of the blogosphere, where reflections on Putin’s report are rather uncomplimentary (www.besttoday.ru, April 23). Mostly, however, political disillusionment is caused by falling incomes, and this elementary function cannot be disproved by upbeat speeches. There is a strong demand for more social programs in the state agenda, but there is also a frustrating understanding that execution of these programs is a major source of corruption.
Putin seeks to energize public opinion not only by promises but also by pressing on the sensitive point of external threat, arguing that “if you are weak, there will always be someone who will be eager to advise you on where to move, which policy to pursue and which development path to choose.” This advise-peddling equals, in his opinion, Western “diktat and gross interference” in Russia’s domestic affairs, so the demands for improving the investment climate, which Medvedev translates in his theses rather uncritically, signify infringements of sovereignty. This appeal to patriotic instincts fails to arouse any indignation because the idea of Western predators is too abstract, while the readiness of the corrupt elites to evacuate their fortunes and families to the West is too transparent (Moskovskiy Novosti, April 22).
The squabble among political clans on the eve of a reconfiguration of leadership has deeper consequences than just eroding the legitimacy of the entrenched regime. The construct of the duumvirate that performed above expectations in the time of unexpected crisis cannot be reproduced due to accumulated acrimony between the two co-rulers. If Putin allows Medvedev to take his desired second term, the team of “modernizers” is set to discover that the freedom from the controlling hand translates into an inability to discipline bureaucracy, to keep the “oligarchs” on any kind of leash, and to keep the public quiet. If Putin opts for reclaiming the position of supreme power, which remains “Plan A,” he could find that the discourse of modernization has taken root devaluing the attempt to buy another decade of stability. Any new leadership formed by heavily manipulated elections will have diminished legitimacy and authority, which weakens Russia’s defenses from the next crisis.