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Russians Should Ask Themselves 'Who's Paying Whom?'

Should Russians embrace President Dmitry Medvedev's hints at liberalization, or demand more?
Should Russians embrace President Dmitry Medvedev's hints at liberalization, or demand more?
Some of my friends who are more sensitive and in-tune than I am have been saying that because of people like me, Russia might miss a rare and important opportunity.

In recent weeks, these friends say, society has received a number of positive signals -- for the most part, coming from President Dmitry Medvedev. They argue that you can see even on television that our young president -- overcoming someone's serious opposition -- is stubbornly drawing Russia into the world of constitutional law, concern for the common man, and simple human goodness.

Here they usually trot out various things Medvedev has said that indicate a thaw. For example, Medvedev expressed sympathy in connection with the murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and young journalist Anastasia Baburova. In this connection, he held a special Kremlin meeting with "Novaya gazeta" co-owner Mikhail Gorbachev and Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov. Considering the steadfast reputation of this newspaper -- where Yury Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya worked and paid for their lives for their commitment to honest journalism -- the sympathy of the Russian head of state can fairly be called unprecedented.

They also mention the website, where anyone is free to write whatever they like and, in general, the president's fondness for innovations like blogs and e-mail and such things that connects him with youths who can't imagine life without the Internet. And they assert with approval that Medvedev has supposedly removed several staunchly anti-Western advisers from the presidential inner circle and replaced them with moderates and with people who are known for their commitment to human rights.

And, they say, he keeps his word. "We are not going to close our eyes to lapses in the work of our managers, to incompetence, corruption, or sloppiness," he promised. And he didn't close them. He immediately dismissed four governors, which is not a matter of just sending four Tajik migrant workers back to their homeland.

And these friends, of course, are not romantic schoolgirls from the Nashi camp. They admit that the president's sympathy for the victims of political banditry came very late and that Medvedev's excuse for this -- that he didn't want to influence the investigation into the murders -- is pure nonsense. And they see that the site is somewhat strange: the section containing praise of the president is given the most visible space, while criticism is hard to find. And as for the presidential council where a couple of laudable people were admitted, they admit it is even less influential than the advisory Public Chamber, which is even less influential than the State Duma, which rarely decides anything that hasn't been decided in advance.

And the situation with the governors is also unclear. Some say that removing four of them is too little; let's put them all on trial. Others strike a conciliatory tone, saying it might come to that, but first we have to figure out for what. And why start with these particular ones and not with those?

Looking On The Bright Side

Despite differences of opinion, these friends say, there comes a time when one has to stop being critical and start demonstrating optimistic realism. And there is a crisis going on. And besides, the weather is bad. We haven't seen the sun for months, but there is something slushy under our feet. Either this is a thaw, the dream of the liberals, or Mayor Yury Luzhkov's people have spread some chemical all over the place.

In such difficult times, they say, it is important to look on the bright side in order not to miss an historic opportunity: We must support Medvedev. Or at least show some ordinary human gratitude.

But the Russian intelligentsia is always grousing about stuff that upsets the Kremlin. Medvedev's site might be closed down any minute, and Gorbachev might not be allowed into the Kremlin anymore, and all the presidential advisory councils might be filled with chekisty -- but would that matter?

This all creates a complicated dilemma for those who are often referred to as "the thinking portion of society." Support or reject? Be grateful or turn away? No one wants to see a bloody revolution, and many of us are wary even of Orange-style uprisings. The criticism that Russians lack a certain mental flexibility is not unjustified. The great Soviet writer Yury Trifonov even wrote about it in his historical novel "Intolerance." Only two or three times in a century does such a door of opportunity open up before the country, and we rush to prop it shut with our arrogant intolerance.

But on the other hand, there has been no thaw and there is no thaw. The pair of random icicles you see aren't because of the Kremlin, but because of the crisis. And if we now fall at the feet of the Kremlin that is all they will remain -- a couple of little icicles for a country of 145 million. And then those who come later will criticize us, saying that the crisis created the chance for a normal life but we lackeys couldn't see further than our own shoes.

Tail Wagging The People?

I think that we must all find the solution to this moral dilemma within ourselves. And the key to resolving it is a simple question: Who is paying whom?

If you think that Medvedev is paying our wages, bonuses, and stipends, if you think that without his OK the pensions of our elderly or the remuneration of our soldiers will not be raised, if you think that without Medvedev's unsleeping eye our governors will plunder all our savings -- if you think this way, then you must be grateful. And still more grateful. Because -- spurred on by our enthusiastic support -- he will increase his efforts to improve our wages and pensions and to hold back inflation. And having begun along this path -- slowly, but surely -- he will sooner or later proclaim, "Let there be a thaw." And a droplet will fall.

But if you think that Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and all their entourage (or, as people say now, their two entourages) and all their assets and savings are paid for by us, the taxpayers, then there is no justification for the recently resurrected Soviet-style feeling of "justified pride and profound gratitude." In that case, a couple of honest people in a powerless advisory council doesn't mean anything. It would only mean something if only honest people were appointed (better, elected) to all the councils. And the removal of four "sloppy" governors won't mean anything until all the incompetent and corrupt officials have been removed (preferably through elections). Not four. Not a dozen, but all of them, no matter what positions they hold.

In short, if you are paying Medvedev, don't be timid. Don't rush to praise things that mean nothing just because that is what is being served up. Demand to drink to the dregs and then ask for another cup.

But if Medvedev is paying you, then get down on your knees and start wagging your tail. Don't have a tail? No problem. Look back there and you'll see that something is wiggling with a feeling of "justified pride." You found it.

Vladimir Nadein is a journalist and contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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