Vienna, September 11 – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s article in “Gazeta” this week, one whose critical tone that echoes some of the sharpest language of the opposition, represents a high risk move that could backfire in much the same way that Mikhail Gorbachev’s conclusion that “we cannot continue to live like this” did at the end of the Soviet period.
That Medvedev is using this venue to criticize the system suggests, Aleksey Makarkin writes in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” that there are at least some inside the elite who favor radical changes but not enough to push them through without support from other groups in the population (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=9445).
But in offering this criticism and thereby suggesting the goals Russia should pursue, Medvedev has not only exacerbated tensions within the elite, including with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but also raised the possibility that those beyond the elite will begin to act on their own, a shift that could shake if not overthrow the entire political establishment.
Medvedev’s “Gazeta” article is the second time the Russian president has spoken out in such critical terms, Makarkin points out, the first occasion being his message to the Federal Assembly last year. But the language in the latest essay is especially sharp and could have been lifted from the speeches of the government’s most radical opponents.
The Russian president in his latest article pointed to what he said were the country’s “ineffective economy, semi-soviet social sphere, not yet institutionalized democracy, negative demographic tendencies, and an unstable Caucasus,” problems which he said were “very big even for a country like Russia.”
All this raises the question, the Moscow analyst says, as to “why Medvedev did this.” Some have suggested that he was seeking “to win the sympathy” of Russia’s liberal politicians, but Makarkin says that he does not think that is the case. Not only are the liberals marginal in Russia, but other parts of the president’s speech would certainly offend them.
Others have argued that Medvedev was seeking to set himself apart from Putin or laying the groundwork to run for a second term as president, but Makarkin argues that “the cause of such unusual Medvedev remarks is elsewhere.” To make his point, he discusses what happened at the end of the Soviet period.
In the late 1970s, Academician Kirillin, who also held the post of one of Aleksey Kosygin’s deputies, headed a commission which concluded that the Soviet government needed to introduce some market-oriented reforms in order to “stop the erosion of the system which was threatening to lead to its demise.”
Such proposals, as Makarkin noted, “did not become the subject of serious discussion. They were simply sent to the archives” because “the then leaders of the country supposed that high oil prices would last for decades and guarantee the preservation of the Soviet political and economic system.”
Despite the support he must have had somewhere among the top elite, the academician, the Moscow analyst writes, was “quickly sent into honorable retirement. Several years went by, and it became too late to patch up the economy” – and, as it proved, too late to save the Soviet political system as well.
Something similar appears to be going on with Medvedev, Makarkin suggests. He and some of those around him “understand that continuing the stratification of the economy, the division of property among bureaucrats and businessmen close to the chiefs, conversations about diversification … and an isolationist foreign policy (relative to the West) is leading to the abyss.”
“If a part, albeit a small part, of the representatives of the Soviet elite came to that conclusion [a generation ago], then why,” Makarkin asks, “should we refuse to consider this possibility among certain people from the post-Soviet elite, who are well informed about the experiences of the last decades of the existence of the USSR?”
If Medvedev is among those who believe that Russia must “seek a way out” of its current impasse – and his remarks about the need for openness “even if this does not please the ruling class” suggest that he is, then the current president is prepared to take risks just as Gorbachev did and reach out beyond the existing elite by “appealing to society.”
But if that is what Medvedev is trying to do with this kind of article, other questions arise, the first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies says, including perhaps most importantly “does society understand the president?” and “is it prepared to be his ally?”
Liberal activists are too suspicious and too alienated to matter, Makarkin continues. “The basic elites are completely satisfied with the current situation and in most cases are supporters of the preservation of the ‘status quo’ for today and tomorrow.” About what will have “the next day,” he points out, “few [of them] are giving much thought.”
By speaking out, Medvedev has certainly attracted the attention of many people beyond the elites, but unless he takes action – and his speech contained no discussion of “the mechanisms” for realizing his goals – he and the system he stands at the head of may very well find themselves in great difficulty.
An article like the one in “Gazeta” may not be the place for such specifics, Makarkin concedes, but if Medvedev fails to offer them and to act soon, then “the most negative consequences are possible – great disappointment among one part of society and confirmation of the skepticism of another” about more than just the incumbent president.
And those attitudes in turn could promote some of the same destruction forces, the Moscow analyst implies, that kept the Soviet system in stagnation for so long because no one wanted to risk any change and that ultimately led to its demise when Gorbachev and others finally concluded that they could not live that way anymore.