Thursday, July 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Medvedev Plans to Manage Russian Democracy a Little Differently

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 3 – Two reports this week suggest that President Dmitry Medvedev will continue his predecessor Vladimir Putin’s policy of managed democracy in Russia but that he will make sufficient changes in that system to allow him to claim and many in the West to accept the idea that he is a liberal.
Yesterday, “Vedomosti” described a report released by the Institute of Contemporary Development on “Democracy: The Development of the Russian Model.” Because President Dmitry Medvedev heads that group’s advisory panel, it likely provides some indication of the direction his administration will take, although the Kremlin says he has not yet read it.
According to the Moscow paper, the republic was prepared for the Institute by the Center for Political Technologies and features as its core argument that the “main condition “ for the modernization of the Russian Federation ought to be “the liberalization of political processes”
The report criticizes the current Russian political system for its weakly developed parties, “servile” parliament, excessive verticalization of power, and an electoral system that “does not guarantee honest and just elections,” although it says that Moscow was justified in not focusing on these issues earlier because of other challenges.
At the first stage of modernization, the report suggests, authoritarianism often works more effectively and generates more popular support than does democracy. That was true in South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia, and it has been true in Russia until recently. But staying with that approach too long can be counterproductive or even dangerous.
If Russia does not develop more effective democratic institutions, the report continues, the rising middle class “will be deprived of the stimuli for development and sooner or later will enter into a sharp conflict with the state,” something that could put not only the future at risk but many of the hard-won gains of the last 15 years.
And according to “Vedomosti,” it specifies that “there cannot be any qualifications to democracy like ‘sovereign’ or ‘administered.’” Instead, Russia must follow the rules of “universal democracy: elections and division of power, independent judges and media, transparent competition on an equal basis, a guarantee of political freedoms and pluralism, the observation of human rights, and the presence of the institutions of civil society.”
And they suggest that while democracy will develop more fully in parliamentary than in presidential republics, “in Russia, the preservation of strong presidential power is ‘absolutely necessary.’ President Dmitry Medvedev can in that way guarantee ‘the liberalization of the political life of the country through administration from above.’”
That qualification undoubtedly reflects what the authors of the report, slated to be discussed at a Moscow conference today, think the market will bear: a slightly modified system many will call “liberalization” but one that will leave Russia a managed democracy, however much Medvedev and others may try to avoid that term.
Indeed, Medvedev gave a clear indication that this is precisely his plan in response to questions from journalists in advance of the G-8 summit. Saying that he did not want to categorize himself as a liberal or anything else, the Russian president stressed that he has from his university years believed in the rule of law (
Law and individual freedom must be defended without qualification, he continued, and they are “priorities of any government activity.” How such support for that should be described, Medvedev told the journalists, is “your task,” not his. But in other comments, he showed that his views are far from what many would describe as liberalization.
“The state is a very valuable invention of humanity,” the Russian president said, as many people now recognize. But “extremes [in its development] are impermissible.” “A state which degenerates into a dictatorship blocks the development of humanity, suppresses freedom and sometimes destroys people.” But one that “disarms itself and … is not capable of resolving state tasks is just as dangerous as a dictatorship.”
Medvedev added that because of these convictions, he is “not a supporter of etatism, that is the supremacy of the state over law. On the contrary, I am a supporter of a legal state, one which develops in the framework of a civilized, contemporary, democratic and legal model, and not the reverse.”
But his earlier comments about the need for a strong state suggest that Medvedev’s vision of a Rechstaat is not necessarily a liberal one, however much a welcome step forward it may prove to be from the arbitrary and authoritarian state his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, worked so hard to create.

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