Can Medvedev emulate Gorbachev?


The security of the United States continues to be tied to decisions in Moscow, as evidenced by President Obama’s touting of the pending strategic arms-control agreement with Russia in his State of the Union address. And those decisions, in turn, will hinge on Russian domestic politics. The central question is whether President Dmitry Medvedev’s increasingly radical rhetoric will begin to translate into policies that would spell a decisive break with those of his predecessor and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Could 2010 become Medvedev’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 -- the year when, also after only two years in the Kremlin and against very strong opposition by hard-liners, Gorbachev began lifting totalitarian controls over politics by declaring glasnost and democratization?

Like Gorbachev in 1987, Medvedev faces tough odds. His speeches are still contaminated by the bluster and outright propaganda lies of Putinism. Moreover, unlike Gorbachev -- who had the awesome power of the office of the Communist Party’s general secretary -- Medvedev’s authority still appears to be on loan from Putin. It’s as if Gorbachev had ruled with Leonid Brezhnev watching over him.

And yet, just as unmistakably, in the last few months, Russia’s president has not only dissociated himself from key tenets of Putinism but challenged and repudiated them, in effect chipping away at the legitimacy of the political and economic order he inherited. Medvedev’s critique was especially pointed and concentrated in his September article, “Rossiya, vperyod!” (“Russia, forward!”), posted on the opposition Web daily -- and more or less reprised, alongside propaganda cliches, in a November address to the Russian parliament.


Medvedev described the Russian economy as “chronically backward,” “primitive” and dependent on raw-materials exports. The system “largely ignores” the needs of people, while businesses are averse to inventing or manufacturing things and, instead, trade in commodities and imported goods. The competitiveness of Russian-made goods in world markets is “shamefully” low. Labor productivity is meager as well, as is the quality of “half-Soviet” social services.

Corruption is ubiquitous, Medvedev goes on to say, and people are all but defenseless against “arbitrariness, non-freedom and the disdain”for the law and the courts that corruption breeds. The wide-spread “paternalistic sentiments” result in a lack of initiative and a dearth of new ideas in an “archaic society” where the “bigwigs” think and decide for everyone.

Medvedev also has called for an end of the era of “petulance, haughtiness, the inferiority complex, mistrust and hostility” in relations with leading democracies, and advocates reversing Russia’s confrontation and self-isolation.

Yet the Russian president’s most portentous, if little noticed, rhetorical break with Putinism goes to the issue of modernization. His statements amount to a rejection of Putin’s choices. First, he wrote that oil and gas, in effect, cannot be the cornerstones and engines of lasting prosperity and progress. A truly great modern state cannot be built on petrodollars. Instead, Medvedev reiterated in the November speech, Russia must develop an “intelligent,” knowledge-based economy. He also rejected the “classic” model of Russian economic modernization in which -- from Peter the Great to Stalin (with Putin as their proud heir) -- industrial breakthroughs have been accompanied by an ever greater expansion of state control over society.

In perhaps his most impassioned posting -- an Oct. 30 video titled “The memory of national tragedies is as sacred as the memory of triumphs” on Medvedev’s personal blog -- he castigated the creeping whitewash of Stalin and Stalinism under Putin by declaring that no “state interests” could justify the “destruction of their own people” and “millions of ruined lives.”

Instead, the modernization Medvedev envisions would be founded on humanistic values, on freedom, personal responsibility and individual success, according to the post. Russia must prove to itself and the world, he declared in the November speech, that the country can succeed in a different mode of modernization: not by coercion but persuasion, not by repression but by the flowering of each person’s creativity, not by fear but by self-interest. Perhaps the most frequent words in his recent speeches and blog postings are svoboda and svobodnyi -- “freedom” and “free.”

In the meantime, Putin’s reaction (and the entire “setup” between the two) remains the $1-million question. Is it a “good-cop/bad-cop” routine to assuage the people until Putin regains the presidency in 2012? Is it indicative of the elite understanding that the “power-vertical model” -- that is, the Kremlin’s domination of the country’s politics and, increasingly, the economy -- has run its course and very gradual liberalization is needed to reignite private initiative as the engine of economic growth?


No one but Putin knows the answer.

Thus far, Putin -- who continues to be far more popular with the people than Medvedev -- has chosen the political textbook strategy of ignoring his junior partner’s critiques. He never takes on his protege directly, publicly upholding the facade of unanimity. Yet Putin’s de-facto refutations, in deed or word, come fast.

Thus, when Medvedev and his top advisors in June intimated Russia’s imminent entrance into the World Trade Organization, Putin announced within days that Russia would not join except as a member of the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan “Customs Union” -- that is, not in a foreseeable future. And on the same day that Medvedev posted the “Russia, forward!” article, Putin described Russian politics and the economy to a group of journalists and experts as “fully in line with international standards.”

Such rhetorical shadowboxing cannot continue indefinitely. Like Gorbachev, Medvedev will soon discover that no progress -- economic, political, social -- is possible without restoring a modicum of trust between the state and society, the power and the people.

This will not be an easy task. The most damaging legacy of Putinism has been the pervasive cynicism born of daily powerlessness amid lies, corruption and cruelty. The reaction of the Russian independent media (confined largely to the Internet) to Medvedev’s rhetorical offensive epitomizes this attitude: Cautiously hopeful comments have been more than counterbalanced by skepticism or even outright dismissal and derision because of the glaring mismatch between words and deeds.

What might some Medvedev deeds include? Gorbachev began by releasing Andrei Sakharov from exile in Gorky in December 1986. Medvedev’s equivalents might include an unconditional pardon for the former leading Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is facing a kangaroo court’s sentence of up to 22 years in jail. The murderers of the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 need to be brought to justice, and the masterminds (not just those who carried out the order) tried in open courts.

There should be an investigation of the shamelessly fraudulent local “elections” in October; a follow-up on the promise made in the state-of-Russia speech to audit (and eventually privatize) state corporations -- created by Putin with Gazprom and Rosneft as his models, and widely believed to be hubs of corruption and mismanagement. Medvedev should, at long last, conduct a credible and full investigation into the 1999 apartment bombings that critics allege were engineered by the secret services to justify the invasion of Chechnya and boost Putin’s popularity.


And perhaps most important, he should relax and eventually abolish the Kremlin censorship of television, enabling Russians to learn the truth about the real state of affairs.

If Medvedev is indeed determined to follow in Gorbachev’s footsteps, his rhetoric must be a prologue to actions. In 2010, his glasnost must be followed by perestroika policies -- or he will fade into irrelevance.

Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of “Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006.”