Medvedev wants to re-democratize Russia

In his historic speech last week, the Russian president aimed at tamping down centralized power.

Medvedev 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Medvedev 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As the world watched Americans elect their first black president, it largely ignored another historic event taking place at the same time in Moscow. On November 5, Dmitry Medvedev gave his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly, the two houses of the Russian parliament. In his speech, Medvedev presented to the Russian lawmakers an action plan the implementation of which could usher in a return to the policy of democratic reforms started by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and continued by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. To be sure, Medvedev's speech was by no means a praise of the West and its values. Rather, the Russian president started his presentation with an array of verbal attacks on the US, demonstrating the rabid anti-Americanism that has become the major axiom of foreign policy thinking of both the common people and elites of Russia. Medvedev reasserted that Russia's recent activities in the Caucasus were justified, and that the US is to blame for this and other international conflicts - an idea which he repeated upon concluding his speech. Medvedev also announced that Russia may place short-range rockets in the Kaliningrad region as a response to the installation of US antiballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But in the middle of his long speech, Medvedev voiced a sharp critique of historical Russian statism, and did not hesitate to hail the adoption of the Russian Constitution under Yeltsin in 1993. He declared that "Russian democracy should develop further." In its first analyses of Medvedev's speech, the Western media tended to emphasize a couple of technical innovations he proposed for Russia's political system, such as extending the term of office of the president and the State Duma (the lower house of the parliament). But more significant in Medvedev's presentation was the outspokenness with which he condemned the Russian state's interference in elections, mass media, civil society and the economy - all of which, in Medvedev's opinion, give birth to corruption in the bureaucracy. He listed a number of practical changes to the post-Soviet political system which, should they be implemented in full, could signal the start of a transformation of the nature of politics in Russia. UNDER VLADIMIR Putin the various official and unofficial alterations of Russia's political system amounted to a centralization and insulation of power in the Kremlin which, by 2007, had led to the restoration of authoritarianism and a de facto one-party system in Russia. In contrast, Medvedev made it clear that he wants to return power back to the people and to see politics become more pluralistic. Thus he proposed that smaller parties should have a voice in Russia's political process, suggesting that those parties falling below the 7 percent threshold in parliamentary elections, yet reaching more than 5%, should, in the future, be represented with, at least, one or two deputies in the State Duma. (One suspects that this peculiar modification of the electoral system is a result of a somewhat awkward compromise between Medvedev, who apparently wants to make the composition of the Russian legislature more diverse, and conservative forces in the Russian government who seek to preserve the high 7% threshold introduced only recently and to secure the nearly total control of the lawmaking process by Putin's United Russia party.) Medvedev also proposed that only elected deputies should become governors of Russia's regions or members of the Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament. He made further suggestions to reduce the number of hurdles for parties to register and take part in elections. Medvedev wants to extend the prerogatives of the national parliament and local legislatures in relation to the executive, as well as to include non-governmental organizations in the legislative process. IN PROPOSING these changes, he seems to be looking for channels to bring in supporters of democratic changes into the legislative process. It is also noteworthy that Medvedev spoke out in favor of a "strengthening of the national mechanism of the application of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" - the major document of the Council of Europe. By doing so, he affirmed Russia's acceptance of basic European standards, and his intention to preserve Russia's membership in some major Western organizations. The most remarkable statements made by Medvedev concerned Russian journalism, the state's tight control of which is perhaps the most consequential pathology of Russia's current political system. It is remarkable that he not only acknowledged this fact openly, but even displayed resignation in the face of it. . Medvedev proposed his own way to solve this problem: "Freedom of speech should be secured by technological innovation. Experience shows that it is practically useless to try to persuade bureaucrats to leave mass media alone. One should not try to persuade, but instead to extend as broadly as possible the space for Internet and digital television. No bureaucrat can prevent discussions on the Internet or censor thousands of TV channels at the same time." While Medvedev's assessments and proposals are sometimes pathetic, they nonetheless, show that he thinks about Russia's political system in much the same way as many Russian political scientists and Western politicians do. Obviously, Medvedev will face enormous obstacles in implementing his vision of a democratic Russia. Still, in formulating its future policies toward Moscow, the West should take notice that the formally most powerful politician of Russia can be counted as a firm supporter of democratic values. The writer teaches at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Bavaria, is editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society and administers the Web site Russian Nationalism (