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Modernizing Like It's 1985


Mikhail Gorbachev addressing the USSR Congress of Peoples' Deputies

Mikhail Gorbachev addressing the USSR Congress of Peoples' Deputies

The turbulence currently rattling Russia's body politic resembles that which existed in the early perestroika period. There is a consensus that there is a need for change, the elite has split into two opposing camps unable to agree over what needs to be done, and neither side can garner a critical mass of support for their agenda.

That is the central argument of political analyst Kirill Rogov in an interesting piece in "Novaya gazeta." Rogov argues that the agendas of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "are fully formed and divergent" but neither of them is making a compelling case.

Here's the money quote:

The problem is not that Russia right now seemingly has two chiefs. The problem is that the feeling that change is necessary has fully matured in society. You cannot brush it off with PR tricks. For society, to move backward (Putin) looks increasingly unpromising historically, and this ignites the prime minister's hostility toward his protégé. At the same time, the calls to move forward (Medvedev) for now appear unconvincing to the greater part of society. As a result, the machine is skidding and starting to overheat from the inside a little.

Rogov correctly points out that the Putin model of authoritarian modernization is inherently unstable because it is dependent on high energy prices:

The Putin agenda is unconvincing because, as the crisis showed, governance by the 'old economy,' with its gigantic raw materials industry, monopolies, and state corporations, looks solid and convincing only as long as oil prices are high. But the onset of an era of low prices is being accepted more and more often as the base scenario for serious long-term forecasts. The logic here is simple. The longer energy prices remain high, the more investments are made in new deposits, production technology, and alternative fuel. And that means a turnaround in prices is virtually inevitable.

A change in the trend of raw materials prices undercuts not only the 'old' economy itself but also the two main pillars of the political regime that rests on it: social stability and the possibility of controlling the elites and the bureaucracy. Therefore, in spite of Vladimir Putin's continuous demonstration of self-confidence and equanimity, the main characteristic of his agenda for the elites in the long-term future is its 'instability.' And Putin's readiness to use force in this context makes this agenda even less attractive.

If Putin's program appears retrograde, Rogov writes that Medvedev's modernization looks like "wishful thinking" reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's belief early in his tenure that he could save the Soviet system with mere tinkering around the edges:

Then, the arrival of a new general secretary coincided with a growing sense in society and among the elite that the status quo was exhausted, a mounting sense of instability, and ominous economic trends. It is amusing that the first reaction to this was a slogan: 'accelerating scientific-technical progress.' Kind of sounds like Medvedev modernization: the search for a simple, technological solution that does not touch on systemic problems.

And as I have blogged here (and on numerous other occasions) those "systemic problems" are essentially political. They won't be resolved by building a Russian version of Silicon Valley in Skolkovo and they won't be solved by luring Western investors to help rebuild crumbling infrastructure. They will only be resolved when Russia's economy is truly decentralized and a real private sector independent of the state -- unlike the current fake private sector, which is an adjunct of the state -- is allowed to flourish.

That, of course, would inevitably lead to a decentralization of power and a more competitive and pluralistic political environment.

Even if Medvedev wanted to go this far, Putin and silovikli cronies like Deputy Prime Minister (and Rosneft CEO) Igor Sechin would never let it happen. Their vision has always been a top-down moernization of the economy and an authoritarian neo-Andropovian political system.

So instead, Medvedev appears to be opting for a cosmetic modernization -- a Gorbachevian "accelerating scientific-technical progress" by another name -- and a pseudo makeover the political system to allow for fake pluralism.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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