Democracy Lessons in Yaroslavl

medved091509.jpgFollowing the publishing of President Dmitry Medvedev’s extended liberal thought piece, which at least one commentator said may as well have been penned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Kremlin convened a conference yesterday in Yaroslavl entitled “The Modern State and Global Security.”

According to the Reuters report, attendees from the state-approved opposition (Zhirinovsky can come, but Nemtsov can forget about it) spent the time discussing the social compassion of Joseph Stalin, berating American democracy, while a visiting Chinese scholar denounced the evils of separatism (hard to know if this was a shot at Russia’s conduct in Georgia).  Even with the Prime Minister of Spain in attendence, the sideshows attracted the most attention.  The salient message to take home with the leftover caviar – sovereign democracy is still the mindset in Moscow, while the “new security architecture” remains the goal.

In anticipated response, Vladimir Kara-Murza of Solidarnost has an article published in the Wall Street Journal refuting the myth pushed by Putin supporters that Russians don’t want democracy:  “Even today, with the Kremlin controlling the airwaves, one opinion pollafter another shows Russians consistently supporting the basic tenetsof democracy, such as a free press and a multiparty system. A June pollby the independent research firm Levada Center showed that 57% ofRussians want the return of direct gubernatorial elections–a practiceabolished by Mr. Putin in 2004. Indeed, if the democratic oppositionhad no popular backing, as the regime’s supporters claim, why is itthat pro-democracy candidates must be removed from the ballot andpro-democracy rallies brutally dispersed?

Yet despite the hostile presentations of some and the tightlycontrolled list of participants, I still see some positive steps here. Though he spoke in safely general terms, who could disagree with Medvedev’s callfor countries to accept criticism from one another?  It is also verypositive to see Igor Yurgens, probably the most progressive member ofthe ruling elites, step out from behind the curtains.  His commentary,while not earth shattering in any respect, appears to be laying thegroundwork for the idea “the period of stabilization” is now”exhausted.”  If stabilization is over, then theoretically, so issovereign democracy. 

Does that mean we’ll see more open voting and democratic process soon?  Will civil society NGOs be allowed to cobble together all their shattered pieces?  Call me cynical, but I would need a lot more evidence before I bought into that one.

Photo credit: Russian President Dmitry Medvedevgestures while speaking with members of the Valdai discussion group inMoscow ‘s GUM department store. Medvedev has said that sanctions weresometimes necessary, referring to the Iran nuclear standoff, but urgedcaution in moving towards them.(AFP/Natalia Kolesnikova)