Reforms and Military Defeat

While my editor was busily working away yesterday, Ariel Cohen had an opinion piece run in the New York Times.  Upon seeing the headline and lede, I was worried that we were going to see yet another one of those “there’s a rift between Putin and Medvedev”-type articles which we have seen so much of over the past year, but Cohen is a little more careful than that in his argument.  Of course Medvedev’s “Forward, Russia!” article and the quip about the blood tests have clearly illustrated that he feels, or wants us to believe that he feels, that he is a different kind of leader from Putin.  However, as Ariel’s op/ed points out, this is all just a rhetorical exercise for the time being, so long as the reformers are without influence.

Some symbolic rifts have also surfaced. How one regards past reformers is a litmus test of political leanings in Russia. Medvedev has repeatedly criticized the reformer-czar Peter the Great as too heavy-handed, whereas Putin in the past has glorified the brutal autocrat, and has even had some good things to say about Stalin (“an efficient political manager who left Russia bigger than he received it”). (…)

Reforms in Russia have traditionally succeeded only when Russia was militarily defeated, as in the Crimean War (1854-1855) or in Afghanistan (1979-1989). Reforms failed or were only partially successful when the reformers (Czar Pavel I, Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin) were perceived as weak. For now, Medvedev is weak.

With all this in mind, Moscow political observers facetiously ask whether Medvedev should have focused his manifesto not on demographic decline, rampant alcoholism and an inefficient economy, but on “enemies of Russia” — external and internal. It worked for his predecessors. But this is not Medvedev’s style.