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The 'Modernizer'

President Dmitry Medvedev at a State Council's presidium on October 25.
President Dmitry Medvedev at a State Council's presidium on October 25.

At a press conference in Moscow today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the following:

Economic life and economic traditions can only be changed by free people, people who are free in their actions and thoughts. For this reason, nothing can be done without the liberation of people, human potential. That is why we should not only improve economic life, but also political institutions.

The context of Medvedev's remarks, made at a press conference with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, was that economic modernization can not work without political liberalization.

Just days earlier, on November 6, the Kremlin leader vetoed a bill -- overwhelmingly passed by the State Duma -- that would have severely restricted the rights of Russian citizens to peacefully assemble.

In his letter to the Duma explaining the veto, Medvedev wrote the following:

The public's right to hold public demonstrations is directly related to citizens' rights to participate in the affairs of state, to the freedom of expression, and to other constitutional rights. Restrictions on these rights is allowed only to in cases where it is necessary to protect the constitutional order, public morality and health, the rights and lawful interests of other persons, or to protect national defense and national security. It seems that the law provides for a federal restriction does not fully correspond with those goals.

Less than a week before that, on November 1, Medvedev's Justice Ministry unexpectedly registered the opposition movement Democratic Choice.

And on October 31, the Strategy 31 movement was allowed for the first time to hold a rally in Moscow.

Baby steps to be sure. Western-style democracy is not on the horizon in Russia now or any time in the near future. But this also seems to be a bit more than just your run-of-the-mill pokazukha.In fact, it is consistent with where I think Russia is heading as it moves ever closer to the crucial 2011-12 election cycle.

And where might that be?

First, I expect Medvedev to run for president as the establishment candidate in 2012 with Putin's blessing -- and of course I expect him to win.

Second, I expect Putin to remain Russia's de facto leader, and it doesn't really matter which post he holds. He could stay on as prime minister. He could become speaker of the State Duma. Or, as I have suggested in numerous posts, he could become general-secretary of United Russia. Whichever it is, as long as the siloviki continue to support him, he remains in charge. Period. I also expect Putin to gradually distance himself from the details of day-to-day governance, much like the Soviet Communist Party general-secretaries of old (or like Iran's Supreme Leader). But nothing important will happen without him signing off.

Third, I expect some form of managed competition to be allowed among political parties in the State Duma. The model I have always expected to emerge is something similar to the fake multi-party systems that existed in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany. United Russia will continue to dominate (just as the Communists did in those systems), but it will also share the stage with a supporting cast of housebroken opposition parties.

This is pure speculation and the situation in Russia remains very fluid. The siloviki -- most notably the powerful Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin -- could balk at any liberalization of the political system, even a largely cosmetic one that Putin has signed off on.

A newly energized civil society could push for a true liberalization (as happened during perestroika), with unpredictable results.

So I could be wrong of course. It wouldn't be the first time. But for what it's worth, this is where I think Russia is heading at this point.

-- 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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