February 8th, 2008 12:28 EST
Medvedev offers Russians No Democratic Alternative
By Robert Coalson*
It isn't hard to find examples of Russian First Deputy Prime Minister and all-but-certain presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev making sweeping affirmations of liberal values.*Robert Coalson received his master's degree in Russian literature from Cornell University. Before joining RFE/RL in 2002 he worked as the opinion section editor of "The Moscow Times" and as editor in chief of "The St. Petersburg Times." He lived in Russia from 1991 until 2002 and is particularly interested in the development of Russia's civil society.
"Today we are building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy," Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007, making a point of speaking this paragraph of his speech in English. "This democracy requires no additional definition. This democracy is effective and is based on the principles of the market economy, supremacy of the law, and government that is accountable to the rest of society. We are fully aware that no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous, and this for the simple reason that it is better to have freedom than not to have it."
For those who missed the message the first time around, this excerpt is featured prominently at the top of the English-language page of Medvedev's campaign website, http://www.medvedev2008.ru. So, too, is a translated version of a July 2007 interview with "Ekspert," in which Medvedev opines that "adding words to further define the term 'democracy' creates an odd aftertaste and gives rise to the thought that perhaps what is meant is some kind of different, unconventional democracy."
Break With Tradition?
Observers often note that Medvedev's advocacy of a democracy that "requires no additional definition" would seem to be a rejection of the semiofficial ideology of "sovereign democracy" that is the brainchild of President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, and that is seen as the philosophical justification for the rapid-fire consolidation of government power within Putin’s power vertical.
When Medvedev was anointed as Putin’s successor in January, many were cautiously optimistic that a new political trend could be in the offing, although no one believed the heir would stray far from Putin’s line. The naming of the relatively liberal technocrat was welcomed as a favorable alternative to silovik Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov or other hard-line presidential also-rans. Gazeta.ru headlined its coverage of Medvedev's christening simply: "100 Times Better Than Ivanov.”
Leaders of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces were harshly critical of the Byzantine way in which Medvedev is being brought to power, but offered relatively little criticism of the man himself.
Medvedev won plaudits again last month with his first major campaign event, a speech before Kremlin-friendly civil-society activists. During that address, Medvedev -- a lawyer by training -- lamented Russia's tradition of "legal nihilism," a curse that "goes back to the dawn of time in Russia." Medvedev noted that Russia exceeds all European countries in terms of "disregard for the law," both on the part of citizens and of officials.
However, he offered no solutions to the problem, saying merely, "We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one." In a subsequent speech to the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Medvedev said the key to overcoming legal nihilism lies in organizing "a system of legal education that reaches out to schools, universities, and the media, getting them all involved." In the speech to civil-society advocates, he paid lip service to the idea of "a powerful and independent media," but speaking to the lawyers he said a key component of his legal-education system will be a new state-controlled television channel, Law TV.
Product Of The System
Expanding the state media sector to combat legal nihilism shows a distinct lack of imagination that could ultimately doom Medvedev's efforts, even if he is sincere. Fundamentally, however, there's good reason to believe he's not. Medvedev was right to note in his speech to civil-society activists that legal nihilism is a product of deep-seated public cynicism, a cynicism that has been cultivated by centuries of inept, closed, and unaccountable government. But he seems unwilling or unable to accept that he has now become a key component of that unaccountable system, and a key beneficiary of it. As a result, his declarations -- to the extent that anyone pays attention to them in the context of a political system where everything is predetermined -- merely add to the public's distrust.
In democratic systems where the electorate bestows legitimacy on the elected, politicians must state their positions publicly before they are elected. Medvedev, however, is taking a different tack, playing by the rules of a corrupted system. He has declined to participate in election debates. He has failed to speak out against the state media, which are giving him exponentially more coverage than they are granting his opponents. He has watched silently as rigged election laws have been used to sideline former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and others who sought to participate in the presidential election. He has said nothing as opposition figures have been harassed and jailed and rallies violently broken up. He has, in short, accepted the advantages of an undemocratic, nihilistic system as if they were his due.
Of course, it is too much to expect that, prior to assuming power, Medvedev would break with the current system, even if he were secretly bent on, as he said in Davos, "building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy." But he has clearly passed on many opportunities to make forceful declarations in favor of those principles.
And there are signs that the public, although resigned to Medvedev's ascendancy and pleased with the prospect of continued stability, is not convinced by his democratic pronouncements. A poll last month asked voters to characterize Medvedev. About 40 percent of respondents mentioned his "intellect," while the same number touted his "professionalism." Just 11 percent, however, cited his "honesty."