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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in his capacity as chairman of the ruling Unified Russia party, today delivered a long and surprisingly optimistic, can-do speech at the party's 10th annual national congress. Putin reassured Russians in the nationally televised address that the government can handle the current economic crisis without sacrificing social programs and even said the economy can emerge stronger than ever.

Little of the speech was dedicated to political issues -- Unified Russia's domination can be taken for granted. But what he did say on the subject is worth noting. "Over the last year, Unified Russia has carried out several responsible election campaigns and has secured the succession and stability of political power in Russia," Putin said to loud applause.

But everyone knows that the 2007 Duma campaign and the March presidential campaign that Putin is referring to were grossly managed, undemocratic affairs characterized by the heavy-handed use of administrative resources (from media to police and beyond) to support Unified Russia. They were also characterized by the arrogant refusal of Unified Russia or Dmitry Medvedev to actually campaign.

I had the similar impression of hypocrisy when I listened to the most compelling parts of President Medvedev's November 5 address to the Federal Assembly. About a third of the way through the speech, he gave this concise and candid assessment of the situation in Russia: "Incidentally, the state bureaucracy continues, like it did 20 years ago, to be guided in everything by a lack of trust in free individuals, in free activity. This logic pushes it to dangerous conclusions and dangerous actions. The bureaucracy from time to time torments business so that it doesn't do something incorrect. It takes control of media outlets so that they don't say something incorrect. It interferes with the elections process so that the wrong person isn't elected. It pressures judges so that someone isn't sentenced incorrectly. And so on."

Medvedev pulls a neat rhetorical trick here by blaming these sins on some faceless bureaucracy working out the inertia of Soviet political culture. But it is impossible to separate this bureaucracy from Unified Russia, and it is impossible to deny that the party and Vladimir Putin and Medvedev himself are the ones who have benefited from all these abuses and others. Medvedev's speech is a perfect description of what Putin termed "responsible election campaigns."

Is the Putin system so fragile that it would have collapsed if Medvedev had admitted that his presidential campaign used the media and elections officials and the courts and the police to secure his own election? That his own presidency is based on "a lack of trust in free individuals, in free activity"? Or would such an admission have been a bold first step at rooting out "legal nihilism" and convincing everyone in Russia that he is serious about "the further development of Russian democracy"?

As long as the leadership's words and actions are so visibly in self-contradiction, the "bureaucracy" will continue to ignore the rhetoric. The nihilism goes on.

-- Robert Coalson

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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