As the world watched the Americans elect their first black president, it has been largely ignored that, across the ocean, another historic event was taking place simultaneously in Moscow.
On November 5, Dmitry Medvedev gave his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly, i.e. the two houses of 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 and gave its due to the rabid anti-Americanism that has become the major axiom of foreign political 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 be blamed for this and other international conflicts — an idea that he, moreover, repeated again, when concluding his speech. Medvedev also announced that Russia may place short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad Region as a response to the installation of US antiballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic.
However, in the middle of his long speech, Medvedev also 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 proposed 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 proposed by the president of Russia for her political system such as the prolongation of the terms of the president and the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament).
What was, however, more significant in Medvedev’s presentation was the outspokenness with which he condemned the Russian state apparatus’s interference in elections, mass media, civil society and the economy — all of which gives, in Medvedev’s opinion, birth to corruption in the bureaucracy. In view of the many deficiencies of the post-Soviet political system, the president announced a number of practical changes which, if implemented in full scale, could signal the start of a new transformation of the nature of politics in Russia.
Under 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 becoming more pluralistic. Thus Medvedev 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 percent 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 percent 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 Russian parliament. He made further suggestions to reduce the 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.
By proposing these changes, he apparently is looking for channels to bring in supporters of democratic changes into the legislative process. It also noteworthy that Medvedev spoke out in favour 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, Medvedev affirmed Russia’s acceptance of basic European standards, and his intention to preserve Russia’s membership in some major Western organizations.
However, the most remarkable statements were made by Medvedev concerning Russian journalism the tight control of which by the state is, perhaps, the most consequential pathology of Russia’s current political system. It is remarkable that the Russian president not only acknowledged openly this fact, but even showed some resignation concerning the firmness of the government’s grip of the mass media. 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 extend as broadly as possible the space for the 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, nevertheless, show that the Russian president 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 future vision of a democratic Russia. Still, in formulating its future policies towards Moscow, the West should take due notice that the formally most powerful politician of Russia can be counted as a firm supporter of democratic values.
Dr Andreas Umland 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 group “Russian Nationalism.” Dr Andreas Umland, Online Journal