The Kremlin has been describing the January 22 State Council meeting as “historic,” so we here at The Power Vertical thought it deserves at least two posts. Yesterday Brian Whitmore noted the strident tone that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took at the meeting and that, overall, it was perfectly clear that limits were being laid down, probably in an attempt to quash overly ambitious expectations evoked by the “liberal” President Dmitry Medvedev.
Although it was a surprise that Putin spoke at the meeting, the tone and content of his speech were not surprising. What was surprising was Medvedev’s speech, which made no apologies for Russia’s current political system and offered no acknowledgment that the country’s flawed and manipulated electoral system is incapable of bestowing real legitimacy on the government. I have said before that this is a big conceptual problem for Medvedev, whose “liberal” leanings (if he actually has any) are hemmed in by the fact that it is virtually impossible for him to admit the basic truth that he himself was installed, not elected president.
The message of the State Council meeting was that whatever “modernization” goes on under Medvedev, whatever is done to combat corruption or to reform the police or the courts – it will be achieved strictly within the framework of a political system that produces and fosters secrecy and unaccountability.
In an article about the State Council session published before it took place, but perfectly anticipating its content, “Rossiiskaya gazeta” – the official organ of Putin’s government – quoted analyst Aleksei Chesnakov as saying, “in any event the authorities are going to act proceeding from the logic that the political system must change but not be changed.” Vyacheslav Nikonov said in the same January 15 article, “there will be no reform of the political system as such.”
After the meeting, analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that any changes that come out of the session will amount to nothing more than “painting the facade.”
The tenor of the State Council session was an exact echo of the political-system section of Medvedev’s November Address to the Federal Assembly. In a post-mortem on that speech published on gazeta.ru on November 19, independent elections analyst Arkady Lyubarev wrote about Medvedev’s proposals: “Whether they will serve the purpose of strengthening democracy on the regional level or, on the contrary, will bolster authoritarian tendencies depends on how they are realized.”
Isn't that always the bottom-line problem with any attempt to address systemic problems with nonsystemic solutions?
Ultimately, the decision not to introduce any accountability or public buy-in to the political system could have a direct impact on the 2012 election and Russia’s future direction beyond that date. In a fascinating interview with RFE/RL, Kremlin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky notes that some time about a year from now, Putin and Medvedev are going to have to decide which of them will be enthroned as president in 2012. Of course, any crisis could happen, in which case the natural impulse will be to return the strongman Putin to the Kremlin. But, barring that, Pavlovsky argues that if Medvedev is able to show some concrete results of his modernization program by the time that discussion takes place (I suppose that discussion is the closest thing Russia is going to have to a “free and fair” election any time in the foreseeable future) and if his standing with the bureaucracy and elites strengthens further, he could well emerge as the chosen one. Pavlovsky, without irony, describes this best-case scenario as the “successful-inertial scenario.”
A second term for Medvedev, arguably, could produce another wave of expectations of “liberalization” and give him a modicum of political capital to move in that direction. If modernization produces no results (and a year isn’t very long to get moving on something so grandiose, even under the best of circumstances), Pavlovsky implies that the elites will scurry back to Putin. Given Russia’s current situation and trajectory, it seems reasonable to wonder whether there isn’t an inherent conflict between the “successful” and the “inertial” parts of Pavlovsky’s formulation. At the very least, it is hard to get one’s mind around the idea of an “inertial” reform plan.
The Kremlin’s views on Russia’s political system grow more “liberal” when elections are far on the horizon and decidedly more “pragmatic” every time an election nears. That means the sober and uninspiring State Council meeting last Friday is practically the high-water mark of political liberalization that we are likely to see before the next election cycle.
-- Robert Coalson