MOSCOW – Last week a number of Russian democratic-leaning online publications posted a Dmitry Medvedev essay titled Forward, Russia! It is an unprecedented and open criticism of Russia’s backward economy, its humiliating raw material orientation, corruption and other woes. Medvedev also offered a critical analysis of the political factors that define Russia’s development – a fledgling democracy, negative demographic tendencies, and volatile Caucasus.
Tellingly though, Medvedev’s target audience, Russia’s young internet readership, had a lukewarm response to their President’s insights. His comments failed to make the spotlight in numerous blogs, being overshadowed by society gossip and sporting events. It looks like Russians are accustomed to hearing Kremlin insiders speak the right words but make no effort to overcome hardships and rectify mistakes.
Medvedev’s critical essay has given rise to many rumors over the reasons and timing for the President’s public assault. It looks like the President and his entourage had specific political objectives to meet. The division of responsibility among the Russian leaders for the outcome of the economic and social crisis in this country is the issue at point.
Polls show that the majority of Russians are prone to blame the government in a general sense for their woes. However, Vladimir Putin, Head of government in the narrow sense (the Cabinet) is continuing to enjoy high ratings and only ranks third on the list of those criticized for a souring environment in the country. Meanwhile, as the polls indicate, Russians view President Medvedev as the person directly responsible for the downturn – he ranks second on the list.
Certainly, the President cannot be happy about these developments. He does not wish to be charged with the mistakes made by his predecessors and present-day colleagues and have his public image tarnished. He challenged the past errors and described Russia as a “paralyzed nation” and a “semi-paralyzed nation” and repeatedly invoked the present-day bureaucratic corruption.
Thus, he attempted to shift responsibility from Russia’s leadership over to numerous bureaucrats. However, these very bureaucrats, including the powerful clans linked to oil and natural gas production and the defense-industrial complex constitute the support of the incumbent regime and President Medvedev. That is why all the President’s incantations are like shooting blanks into the void, impacting no one but producing a significant noise effect.
It is certainly easy to blame the past traditions, for example, theft, mental and intellectual laziness, and criticize the society’s paternalistic sentiments, like Medvedev does. But the fundamental idea that the government could liberate private initiative and offer its citizens a chance to prove themselves by way of providing more economic freedom in the country, limiting government regulation and control that are a breeding ground for rampant red tape and corruption – this idea is missing from Medvedev’s essay. Actually, Medvedev stands for a stronger government role in the economy, which in fact has nothing to do with battling backwardness and corruption.
In the meantime, Russian reality is offering increasingly more evidence of how right Medvedev’s critical assessment of Russia’s current environment is and how far he is from achieving democracy improvement – the goal he stated. For example, at a meeting with the Valdai Club of leading Western political scientists Prime Minister Putin promised to address the next presidency together with Medvedev, “We’ll sit down and think about what to do.” This approach can hardly claim to meet the minimum standards of democracy, civil society and the rule of law.
Or, for instance, take a look at just one issue of a well-known Russian business paper. It reports two, seemingly unrelated facts. A certain Stroigazmontazh Ltd. intends to receive Gazprom-issued $39 million guarantee for a loan it has taken out. Understandably, Gasprom will not be taking such steps for outsiders.
And the Russian Holding Company owned by the North Sea Passage (Sevmorputbank) bank that is aggressively expanding in Moscow turns out to be a stockholder of Moscow’s largest liquor factory Kristall. The same bank oversees the government-run Rosspirtprom’s assets.
What is in common between gas-facility construction and liquor industry apart from both being super profitable and lucrative? Co-owner of all the aforesaid business structures – Stroigazmontazh, RHC and Sevmorputbank – is Prime Minister Putin’s old-time friend Arkady Rotenberg who used to play judo with him in their younger days in St. Petersburg.