Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's much-awaited and twice-delayed address
to the Federal Assembly today was both predictable and remarkable. It opened with an anti-Western and anti-American barrage that took no one by surprise
But after he had solidly established his patriotic bona fides, Medvedev turned to an often cogent and penetrating critique of the state of Russian society. And he offered at least a dozen specific proposals for reform, including some that roll back restrictions on civil society and political participation that Vladimir Putin instituted during his presidency. While it seems clear that Medvedev is not abandoning the state-dominated and state-driven development model (social, political, economic, etc.) of his predecessor, his proposals included clear steps in the direction of greater transparency and accountability.
The main questions now are is Medvedev sincere in pursuing even a gradualist agenda in the direction of liberalization -- and there is strong evidence in his past record to cast doubt on this -- and, if so, will he be able to overcome the active and passive opposition of corrupted bureaucrats, police, prosecutors, judges, and so on. Medvedev himself noted correctly that the culture of corruption, government disdain for the citizenry, and legal nihilism "did not appear yesterday" in Russia and will not be rooted out tomorrow.
The strains of the national anthem were still echoing in the hall after Medvedev's speech when a colorful example of what any sincere liberal reformer is up against in Russia emerged. One of Medvedev's initiatives was a proposal that all political parties be forced to change their leadership at regular intervals -- a reasonable measure designed to end the vanity parties that have clogged the Russian political landscape and to expand the pool of talent and ideas within the political process.
Journalists immediately asked Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has headed the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia since he founded it in 1990, what he thought of this proposal. Zhirinovsky unhesitatingly declared that he supports it, adding that is "high time that [Communist Party leader since 1993 Gennady] Zyuganov retired." What about himself? "I will also move to another spot," Zhirinovsky said, adding, "But I'll remain at my post." He then added that his party will introduce legislation that would limit all senior leaders -- presidents, governors, ministers, and party leaders -- to 10 years in office. That proposal seems calculated to provoke enough opposition to kill the whole idea. One way or another, Zhirinovsky at least doesn't quite seem in step with the spirit of Medvedev's idea.
Change in Russia is too often just an exercise in musical chairs. If Medvedev doubts that, maybe he should ask his prime minister.
-- Robert Coalson