Vienna, April 20 – Despite a series of much-publicized events that some commentators in Moscow and the West suggest represent significant “breakthroughs” to “liberalization,” a Russian commentator argues that Dmitry Medvedev is in fact offering “the imitation of political reform” in order to defend Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian system.
In an article in today’s “Gazeta,” Vladimir Milov, the head of the Moscow Institute of Energetic Politics, says that during April, President Medvedev has “thrown out to society a whole bouquet” of “’signals’” suggesting a dramatic change in the political climate in Russian toward a more liberal order (www.gazeta.ru/column/milov/2976296.shtml).
But a careful consideration of what the Russian president has said and even more of the sources of his comments and actions suggests that “there is no basis to expect serious changes in the policy of the ruling clan” and that any “hopes for the softening of the [current] political course are once again premature.”
Indeed, Milov says, “there is no doubt that we are dealing with the latest playing with liberal society, the goal of which consists of the neutralization of any outburst of freedom-loving attitudes as a result of the sharpening of the crisis and the ineffectiveness of government anti-crisis measures.”
As in the past, the Moscow analyst says, Medvedev’s words into which so many have invested so much do not point to anything “concrete.” Instead, they suggest yet again that “the president has taken upon himself the role of the good cop,” with the task of keeping off balance and parrying those “dissatisfied with the authoritarianism of the representatives of the elite.”
This “tactic,” which Medvedev has practiced so long that one could call it a strategy, “was most clearly formulated in a report of the Center for Political Technologies on ‘Democracy: the Development of the Russian Model.” That paper “denied the need for a significant liberalization of the social-political system and the creation of conditions for pluralism.”
“On the contrary,” Milov notes, that paper called for the continuation of the existing system and its defense through the elaboration of “a certain kind of pseudo-democratic accessories” such as the use of government-controlled “opposition” parties and the creation of possibilities for their representation in the parliament.
Such actions do little or nothing to change the system, however much many want to believe otherwise, but they do make for good public relations, Milov argues. And they can under conditions of economic crisis distract the attention of those who are suffering but who want to be offered some hope for the future.
Public reaction even to the efforts of Boris Nemtsov to raise certain “sharp” questions in his campaign for mayor of Sochi demonstrated to the siloviki and the bureaucracy, the Moscow analyst continues, just how dangerous for them would be any “weakening of control over politics and the media.”
The powers that be, he argues, understand that their “extraordinarily egoistic defense of interests of the narrow ruling clan over the last ten years” could under those circumstances open the way to a more general attack on their leaders and themselves, a risk that none of them is now prepared to take.
It is of course “possible” that Medvedev would like to change things – indeed, the plausibility of the idea that he would makes him more effective in his current role – but he is surrounded by people who do not want change because any change would be a threat to their power and property. And consequently, Milov says, they remain in a position to block it.
Meanwhile, in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Aleksandr Podrabinek provides details about one of Medvedev’s efforts to present himself as committed to some kind of liberalization, his meeting last week with those human rights activists who have been “co-opted” into the Presidential Council for Supporting the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.”
From Medvedev’s perspective, the meeting was clearly “successful” because it showed off “as it were the human face of the current Russian powers that be” and “showed Russian society that even the enemies of authoritarian power – the human rights activists – are very successfully being integrated into the power vertical” (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=8994).
Moreover, Podrabinek continued, this unusual and much-covered meeting “gave the human rights activists the chance to melt in an ecstasy of love and gratitude to President Medvedev and gave Medvedev the rare chance to present himself as a man of broader views with a great political future.”
In remarkably brutal terms, Podrabinek attacks those who attended the meeting and concludes that “it is becoming shameful to call oneself a human rights activist when others who do so in an obsequious fashion run to the Kremlin to say flattering words to a nonentity who is occupying a post other than his own.”
Podrabinek’s comments about those human rights activists who did attend are certainly too sharp. Many of those at the meeting could and would certainly respond that they did so not because of what Medvedev and his mentor Putin have done but rather because they are committed to exploiting any remaining chances they have to improve the situation.
But Podrabinek’s comments are appropriate for those not there who celebrated that meeting and several other recent Medvedev actions as turning points in the history of the country. They, unlike the rights activists Podrabinek criticizes, are not only deceiving themselves but serving precisely the interests of those whose policies they claim to oppose.