Medvedev and the “Rebirth” of Russia

medvedev011410.jpgBarring some remarkable turn of events, in about 14 months the first Medvedev presidency will come to an unremarkable conclusion.  Perhaps sensing the ticking clock, and eager to leave his signature on at least one successful item of public policy, the president has steered his agenda away from the challenging pursuits of anti-corruption, legal nihilism, and modernization, focusing instead on the lowest-hanging fruit:  improving the lot of Russia’s children.

He’s picked a good issue.  In terms of health, education, and resources for Russia’s children, especially orphans and the economically vulnerable, they need all the help they can get.  According to some numbers gathered in an article on GlobalPost, there are “almost 700,000 young people in Russia who have been abandoned by their families — one out of every 27 children. Less than 15 percent of these children are orphans in the full sense of the word; the majority have living relatives.

Medvedev has sprung into action over the holidays, passing legislation to protect children’s rights, preventing “harmful information” from being distributed to kids, ordering proposals to develop a subsidy for abandoned children, and even visiting the Ivanovo orphanage for a photo op, bringing computers, vehicles, and 30 million rubles for repairs.  We can only wish him luck and hope for the maximum success – it’s good to see someone in government picking up where Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s philanthropy at Koralovo dropped off (before his arrest, they sent spetsnaz into the school as intimidation, so this must be an improvement).

But the best part about choosing child welfare as a new pet project isthat the president is so much less likely to be blatantly ignored by thebureaucrats, which has clearly been the case on the majority of his reforms and attempts to bring about accountability.

It might be premature to lay out Medvedev’s political obituary a year ahead of time, but even the president seems close to admitting that he couldn’t get enough people on board to convince them of the need for reform.  Many of us who still harbored dim hopes for a surprise were most recently encouraged by Medvedev’s frank comments on the threat of Russia’s political “stagnation,” which was seen as a preview for his annual address to Duma.  Instead, all the reform-minded folks were let down when this year’s speech focused mainly on children.  Perhaps nudged off track by sustained high oil prices, Medvedev’s initiatives on corruption, economic modernization, and modest political reform have gone backwards.  Other projects like Skolkovo and South Stream are potemkin, whereas the big ticket items like the World Cup already bear Putin’s ownership.  Other than some notable firings (such as the Luzhkov affair), it has sadly been a presidency of nothing – a rebirth of Putin in primetime.

While disappointment has become the defining tone of the Medvedev era, you can never be precisely sure of what is coming next.  Putin, whether he chooses to directly take the presidency in 2012 or select another puppet to operate from the top of United Russia, will face a very rocky road in the medium term, as the erosion of institutions and other “shock absorbers” of the executive power vertical begin to take their toll.  After all these years of rather uneventful sovereign democracy, Russian politics are likely to get very interesting over the next couple of years.