The past week saw an unprecedented number of President Dmitry Medvedev’s public acts towards civil society institutions. He was interviewed by the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, met with representatives of civil rights NGOs and had a protracted televised talk on NTV channel deemed the most liberal of the government-run television channels.
The President said the right things – that Russia’s democracy was similar to everybody else’s and did not need to be adapted, that political rights and freedoms cannot be traded for stability and prosperity and NGOs are an inalienable civil society institution. Medvedev also supported softening NGO legislation.
Many experts interpreted Medvedev’s pronouncements as covert polemics with his predecessor Vladimir Putin who repeatedly said democracy needed to be adapted to Russian environment and did his utmost to solidify government control over NGOs.
What urged Medvedev to flirt with democracy? Admittedly, Medvedev – both in his antecedents and upbringing – has a different cast of mind than Putin and could be more receptive to liberal ideas. However, his long-term work with Putin and his retinue and his enduring dependence on Putin’s clan hampers Medvedev in pursuing an independent policy over the delicate issue of the government’s relations with Russia’s fledgling civil society.
Then again, dramatic changes in the country on account of a profound economic crisis demand that the incumbent regime makes certain adjustments to political slogans and approaches. The Moldovan developments a couple of weeks ago seem to have shown the Kremlin how spontaneous, resolute and even harsh can the response of the active portion of the people be to the authorities’ actions they are disaffected with.
Opposition political parties and NGOs that use the Internet are becoming powerful tools of political struggle the government has to reckon with. Thus, it looks like the Kremlin stepped up its public relations campaign towards the news media and NGOs by demonstrating its readiness to reach out to them.
Tellingly, this readiness is manifest in the President’s rhetoric only. His statements and promises have yet to be backed up by specific actions and laws. They would be the true yardsticks of Russia’s freedoms and nascent civil society.