Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has launched a rhetorical campaign pushing for more openness in his country’s politics. Some analysts see this as an attempt to establish a distinct alternative with Vladimir Putin while others are more skeptical.
On Monday, as reported by Charles Clover for FT, Medvedev gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta, “a newspaper known for its sharp criticism of the Kremlin for his first interview in a Russian publication, a sign that he is trying to establish an independent and more liberal persona than Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and now prime minister.”
He followed up on Wednesday, according to an unsigned Reuters report in The Moscow Times, with this:
President Dmitry Medvedev has told human rights campaigners he would like to set aside a small area in central Moscow akin to London’s “Speakers’ Corner” where Russians could give free vent to their political ideas. The country saw a blossoming of public activism and rallies in the 1990s, breaking with a harsh tradition of tsarist and then Communist rule. Rights groups argue those freedoms of speech, the media and fair elections have now been stripped away.
“It looks cool,” Medvedev said of Speakers’ Corner, set at the edge of Hyde Park in central London. “I need to speak with the Russian authorities and build our very own Hyde Park.” For Russians, the notion of Hyde Park is synonymous with Speakers’ Corner.
Medvedev made the comments to human rights activists on Wednesday, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin on Thursday. Recently, Medvedev has struck a decidedly different tone on political dissent to that of his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who remains the country’s most popular man and exerts considerable influence.
And, as Vladimir Isachenkov reports for AP, he followed up with more encouraging remarks yesterday:
Russia needs stronger political competition and a greater freedom to protest, President Dmitry Medvedev said in remarks released Thursday, sending the strongest signal yet that he may rethink the legacy of predecessor Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev, who has positioned himself as a cautious liberal during his first year in power, has until now followed the path blazed by Putin, who methodically rolled back Russia’s post-Soviet freedoms during his presidency. Medvedev’s statements at a meeting Wednesday with civil society activists contained some of his most explicit criticism of Putin’s policies to date. The remarks were released on the Kremlin’s Web site Thursday. Medvedev specifically criticized the 2006 law that toughened registration and accounting rules for human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations, hampering their operations. “A significant number of officials, which I think is quite dangerous, have got a sense that non-governmental organizations are enemies of the state which must be confronted to prevent some disease from seeping through and undermining the foundations of our order,” Medvedev said.
Another Reuters piece, also in Moscow Times, sounds a cautionary tone:
Analysts warned, however, against interpreting Medvedev’s statements as a rift in his ruling tandem with Putin. According to a full transcript of the meeting published Thursday, Medvedev carefully avoided any outright criticism of Putin when responding to calls by leading rights campaigners to halt Russia’s rollback of democracy.
Boris Makarenko, a senior analyst with Medvedev’s think tank INSOR, said the president’s new line was part of a coordinated policy of he and Putin rather then a sign of a rift between them. “The very choice of Medvedev as president showed that Putin was ready for a certain correction of the political style,” he said. “What will happen is mild liberalization. This is a signal to elites that the ban on political competition is over. The crisis only made these steps more urgent,” he said.
Tim Wall, editor-in-chief of the Moscow News, argues the truth is somewhere in between.
But Medvedev’s pluralism only went so far, as his answers were not particularly groundbreaking. He staunchly defended the Kremlin’s record on democracy, denying that there had been any rollback of democratic rights in the last several years. And in his answer: “Democracy existed, exists and will be,” some Kremlin-watchers saw a doublethink echo with the Soviet-era mantra: “Lenin lived, lives and will live.”
In the interview, conducted on Monday, Medvedev said that the Sochi mayoral election was a “real political battle”, but on the same day a Sochi court barred businessman Alexander Lebedev from the city’s mayoral election on a bizarre technicality. This whittled down the original field of more than 23 candidates to just a handful, leaving the United Russia candidate, acting mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, in a stronger position to fend off the challenge of liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and local Communist Yury Dzagania.
Lebedev’s barring from the race also makes it difficult to speak of pluralism in the country’s political system. Certainly, it speaks of how far the Kremlin’s writ extends when it comes to deciding who controls Sochi’s massive Olympic construction contracts.
Much has been made by some commentators of the fact that Putin has never given such an interview to Novaya Gazeta, and that other nuances in the two leaders’ approaches signify real differences between them. But others point out that the same policy differences show Medvedev simply playing out a predetermined role – that of “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop”, or investor-friendly CEO to Putin’s more hard-headed chairman of the board. In this role, whatever its exact parameters, Medvedev is clearly encouraging pluralism and direct criticism of the government. That pluralism only goes so far – at this stage.
What happens if bigger differences emerge between the Kremlin’s ruling clans as the economy worsens may be a more interesting story.
Indeed. Absent sustained evidence of real changes in policy, Westerners expecting the Russians to evolve into something other than Russians would be well advised to avoid getting their hopes up too high.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.