Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 13

On January 22 Dmitry Medvedev laid out what are apparently the main planks of his presidential election campaign platform in an address to the Civic Forum, a gathering of representatives from some Russian non-governmental organizations and other groups sponsored by the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-appointed consultative body. As the Moscow Times noted, Medvedev, who, in his current role of first deputy prime minister, has been in charge of priority national projects in the social sphere, pledged to keep to the current Kremlin course but hinted at a softer stance in several key policy areas (Moscow Times, January 23).

Medvedev said Russia already has a civil society and that the state will follow a “firm course” of developing “a free society” in which freedom and justice must become the main principles. “Our civil society arose in the contradictory events of the last two decades,” he said. “But it is an incontrovertible fact that it is today an element of our political life.” The main conclusion from the experience of the 1990s, Medvedev said, is that an “open civic dialogue is extremely important for our society.” He also said that Russia must have “influential and independent mass media – national and regional, print and electronic, and called new [media].”

Medvedev said Russia is creating a democracy, and that in a representative democracy, it is “very important that the representatives don’t forget about their obligations before the citizenry,” with the state’s role being to ensure that the representatives protect these interests fully. Representing the people’s interests, he added, must be carried out on the basis of “wide public support” and “functioning legislation and democratic procedures” that permit “a dialogue between society and the authorities, a dialogue about the goals and priorities of national development.”

The main issue in developing a democratic society in Russia, said Medvedev, is that of combining “our national traditions with a functional set of democratic values” – an issue that, he said, Russian society has faced for at least 150 years but is closer than ever to being resolved. On the one hand, he said, “We have in many respects returned to our traditions, to our own cultural values,” which constitute Russia’s “national identity” and are also an essential part of “world civilization. On the other hand, he said, “We already have our own very valuable, albeit contradictory experience of life under the conditions of real democracy – both political and economic democracy. And the democratic institutions formed during that period have proven their strength, despite the problems in their development” (Newsru.com, January 23).

As the Moscow Times noted, Medvedev defended reforms to the party system under President Vladimir Putin, saying that before the changes – including ending direct election of governors and various reforms that, according to critics, gave the Kremlin effective control over the State Duma – elections had been a mere “carnival of populist promises” (Moscow Times, January 23).

Medvedev also said it is necessary to “construct an effective pension system that would ensure a dignified old age” (Newsru.com, January 22). Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told a cabinet meeting on January 21 that the government may use 343 billion rubles ($14.10 billion) in extra 2008 revenues and savings to raise pensions and public sector wages. Earlier this month, Putin called for higher pensions and said social issues should set the tone for Russian economic policy in the next few years (Reuters, January 21).

On the issue of corruption, Medvedev said Russia is a country of “legal nihilism” and that not a single European country can boast of such “disdain for the law.” Therefore, he said, the fight against corruption must become a “national program.” Legal nihilism, he said, manifests itself in the form of “crime,” including “in the form of corruption in the power bodies,” which, he said, exists on a “huge scale” in Russia today (Newsru.com, January 22).

While Medvedev’s speech was received positively by a number of the civil society activists who attended the Civic Forum and other observers, some critics have raised doubts about whether Medvedev, who is almost certain to be elected president in March, will be able either to carry out these reforms or cope with the problems he is likely to encounter. In a commentary published before Medvedev’s speech, Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute, expressed these doubts in a series of questions.

“How can state administration be carried out in a situation where 99% of the bureaucracy is corrupt and not even the most monarchical order can be carried out without reinforcement in the form of a bribe?” Belkovsky wrote. “How can an army which simply doesn’t exist be put on a professional or any other basis? … How can Western Europe’s energy security be guaranteed if the widely exploited reserves of oil and gas will not be sufficient even for domestic consumption in 2-3 years? Will it be possible to suppress a barbaric rise in prices for bread, milk, and meat if the Russian Federation has already for a long time now been dependent on imports of food, and everything is getting more expensive on the … world market? What can be done with the North Caucasus if Ingushetia is already beyond control, another 2-3 republics are next in line and the supposed Chechen obedience is hanging by a hair on the Homo erectus Ramzan Kadyrov?”

Belkovsky, who earlier predicted that Medvedev as president would ratchet up the pressure on the opposition under the banner of protecting democracy and battling extremism (see EDM, January 7), said that in the face of these problems, Medvedev can initially “close his eyes tight and concentrate on protecting freedom from extremists.” But he added: “And then?” (Grani.ru, January 21).