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    Central Asia
     Nov 8, 2008
SPEAKING FREELY
The other historic event
By Andreas Umland

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As the world watched how Americans elected their first black president, Barack Obama, it has been largely ignored that across the ocean another historic event was taking place simultaneously in Moscow.

On November 5, Dmitry Medvedev gave his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly, the two houses of the Russian parliament. In his speech, Medvedev presented to Russian lawmakers an action plan which, if implemented, could usher in a return to the policy of democratic reforms started by Mikhail

 

Gorbachev in the late 1980s and continued by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

To be sure, Medvedev's speech was by no means a praise of the West and its values. Rather, the Russian president started with an array of verbal attacks on the US and gave vent to the rabid anti-Americanism that has become a major axiom of foreign political thinking of both the common people and elites of Russia.

Medvedev reasserted that Russia's recent activities in the Caucasus - intervention in Georgia - were justified, and that the US is to be blamed for this and other international conflicts - an idea that he, moreover, repeated again when concluding his speech. Medvedev also announced that Russia may place short-range rockets in the Kaliningrad region as a response to the installation of US anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic.

However, in the middle of his long speech, Medvedev also voiced a sharp critique of historical Russian statism, and did not hesitate to hail the adoption of the Russian constitution under Yeltsin, in 1993. He proposed that "Russian democracy should develop further". In its first analyses of Medvedevís speech, the Western media tended to emphasize a couple of technical innovations proposed by the president for the country's political system, such as the prolongation of the terms of the president (to six years) and the State Duma (the Lower House).

What was, however, more significant in Medvedev's presentation was the outspokenness with which he condemned the Russian state apparatus's interference in elections, mass media, civil society and the economy - all of which gives, in Medvedev's opinion, birth to corruption in the bureaucracy.

In view of the many deficiencies of the post-Soviet political system, the president announced a number of practical changes which, if implemented in full scale, could signal the start of a new transformation of the nature of politics in Russia.

Under president Vladimir Putin, the various official and unofficial alterations of Russia's political system amounted to a centralization and insulation of power in the Kremlin, which by 2007 had led to the restoration of authoritarianism and a de facto one-party system.

In contrast, Medvedev made it clear that he wants to return power to the people and to see politics becoming more pluralistic. Thus, Medvedev proposed that smaller parties should have a voice in the political process, suggesting that those parties falling below a 7% threshold in parliamentary elections yet reaching more than 5% should in the future be represented with at least one or two deputies in the Duma. (One suspects that this peculiar modification of the electoral system is a result of a somewhat awkward compromise between Medvedev, who apparently wants to make the composition of the legislature more diverse, and conservative forces in the government who seek to preserve the high 7% threshold. The latter was introduced only recently to secure the nearly total control of the lawmaking process by Putinís United Russia Party.)

Medvedev also proposed that only elected deputies should become governors of Russia's regions or members of the Federation Council, the Upper House. He made further suggestions to reduce the hurdles for parties to register and take part in elections. Medvedev wants to extend the prerogatives of the national parliament and local legislatures in relation to the executive, as well as to include non-governmental organizations in the legislative process.

By proposing these changes, he apparently is looking for channels to bring supporters of democratic changes into the legislative process. It is also noteworthy that Medvedev spoke out in favor of a "strengthening of the national mechanism of the application of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" - the major document of the Council of Europe. By doing so, Medvedev affirmed Russiaís acceptance of basic European standards and his intention to preserve Russia's membership in some major Western organizations.

However, the most remarkable statements were made by Medvedev concerning Russian journalism, the tight control of which by the state is, perhaps, the most consequential pathology of Russia's current political system. It is remarkable that the president not only acknowledged openly this fact, but even showed some resignation concerning the firmness of the government's grip on the mass media.

Medvedev proposed his own way to solve this problem: "Freedom of speech should be secured by technological innovation. Experience shows that it is practically useless to try to persuade bureaucrats to leave the mass media alone. One should not try to persuade, but extend as broadly as possible the space for the Internet and digital television. No bureaucrat can prevent discussions on the Internet or censor thousands of TV channels at the same time."

While Medvedev's assessments and proposals are sometimes pathetic, they nevertheless show that he thinks about the political system in much the same way as many Russian political scientists and Western politicians. Obviously, Medvedev will face enormous obstacles in implementing his vision for a democratic Russia. Still, in formulating its policies towards Moscow, the West should take due notice that the formally most powerful politician in Russia can be counted on as a firm supporter of democratic values.

Dr Andreas Umland teaches at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Bavaria, is editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html), and administers the website Russian Nationalism.

(Copyright 2008 Andreas Umland.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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