Should Medvedev Cross the Rubicon?

A recent article published in Vedomosti by Igor Yurgens and Yevgeny Gontmakher regarding the as-of-yet unknown political aspirations of President Dmitry Medvedev has prompted a lot of discussion online (read it in English here).  Their manifesto was controversial, not for declaring Russia’s democracy as stillborn (most observers even within the government are comfortable saying so), but rather for the pressure that they are urging all of the president’s supporters to exercise in order to urge him to declare his candidacy.  Yurgens and Gontmakher argue that Russia faces crisis without Medvedev at the helm, including economic collapse, proliferation of corruption, and a contraction of social services that will lead to serious protest actions and a further tightening of the political regime.  They argue that even if it is not Putin who becomes the next president, even a third party would be incapable of leading the reform process.  And they weren’t subtle about it at all:  “We demand not just any old answer to the question that everyone is sick and tired of – and furthermore, not in December, but already in the nearest future.  We insist that specifically Dmitry Medvedev take upon himself the political responsibility for the fate of the country as its president in 2012-2018.

Well there you have it.  Naturally, there are plenty of people who have come forward in sharp disagreement – and quite reasonably, it can be exhausting to constantly hear pundits talk up Russia’s “imminent collapse.”  Often, it’s just lurid fantasy – there is much to criticize about the leadership and the shortcomings of the system, but economically, socially, and especially politically, this is not a country on the cusp of revolutionary upheaval.  In fact, that was precisely the argument of Charles Grant we posted earlier, but he was mainly talking about the lack of change in Russia’s foreign relations.

Below is our translation of an article from Svobodnaya Pressa, which contains interviews with Nikolai Petrov and Evgeny Minchenko. It’s like pundit Battle Royale.  Enjoy, and let us know whose argument you think is more persuasive.

Putin will modernise Russia

After 2012 life will be economically worse, but politically more fun

The leaders of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), Igor Yurgens and Evgeny Gontmakher, predict a Russian catastrophe. The current “stabilization” has become synonymous with not just stagnation but degradation in all areas of life, they say. And if President Dmitry Medvedev does not run for the 2012 electionit will turn into a most severe large-scale national crisis.

Vedomosti has published comments from the institute’s directors.

If we believe Messrs. Yurgens and Gontmakher the crisis scenario looks like the following. The Russian stock market will collapse; capital flight will increase dramatically and the intellectual elite will emigrate; and the disgruntled will stage demonstrations, which may take on an extremist character. Due to the collapse of the already weak economy, the social sphere will be definitively impacted. Health and education will ultimately be privatised, pensions will be reduced, and the political regime will become tougher and ultimately marginalized just like in Belarus.

Moreover, as emphasized by Yurgens and Gontmakher, Vladimir Putin does not even have to return to the Kremlin for this to take place – “the nomination of a third candidate would be enough. If Dmitry Medvedev resigns from the race, the new candidate would inevitably emerge from the prime minister’s inner circle”

To save Russia the directors of INSOR implore Dmitry Medvedev to respond soon to the “question of which everyone is sick and tired” of whether he will be a future presidential candidate, inciting him to “dare to cross the Rubicon” and to join an “equal and impartial” dialogue with society.

“What would be very positive to emerge from this dialogue would be the decentralization of the state, the ensuring of real freedom of the media (including the creation of Public Television), and the radical liberalization of the legislation on party building and non-profit organizations, and much more,” recommend the directors of INSOR.

A leading expert of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, Nikolai Petrov discusses what the directors have mentioned

‘Svobodnaya Pressa’: Nikolay Vladimirovich, do we really face the choice between stagnation and degradation (Putin) or modernisation (Medvedev)?

– We have indeed a fork in the political road ahead, and our options have become personalized. On a different note, Medvedev doesn’t take the initiative nor can he be said to be the commander in chief of the modernisation route. He is the symbol of modernisation, and around him forces are gathered who not really interested in meaningful modernization.

Dmitry Medvedev is not a very good politician, he is indecisive, with little training and no political power.

But the problem is not that the important and serious path to modernisation is personalized. The problem is that the choice about which they write (Gontmakher and Yurgens) was decided long ago. The path that we are on now, and which the INSOR directors criticize will continue.

‘SP’: Why then all the talk of modernization?

– Two or three years ago, when they were talking about modernizing there was a major crisis. The political elite and business elite feared that the existing economic model would not be able to feed them for another ten years, and so they sought alternatives. If the state of oil affairs had been different, the oil could have cost less, perhaps a course of modernization would have been supported by major players. But this did not happen.

What we have now? Perhaps deep down Medvedev is a disciple of modernisation. At the very least, that route would have allowed him to position himself as an independent player. But neither president, Putin or Medvedev, will do what he himself thinks is good. He will do whatever the business and political elites lean towards. This balance of power is now clearly leaning in favour of the preservation of the old way.

‘SP’: But why?

– Because of the old saying “Let well enough alone.”  Unless it becomes absolutely necessary, for example, if the lives and welfare of the political elites are at risk, there will never be large-scale modernization.

The radicalism of what Yurgens and Gontmaker have said is due to the fact that they long ago made a choice. It was largely them who formulated the ideas that are associated with Medvedev, and in many cases ideas that he never even articulated himself. Yurgens and Gontmakher are much more vibrant supporters and spokesmen for the path of modernization. For them, the situation is clear: Albeit that the chances that Medvedev will be president are extremely small, we nonetheless must do everything possible.

‘SP’: Okay. So the elite select the policy. Is there any chance that this will change after 2012?

– After the presidential elections policy will seriously change. We await cuts in social spending and the revision of populist policies, which took place in recent years. In my opinion, we resorted to populism because the prospect of early presidential elections prevailed over the powers that be. Every year we lived as in pre-election season and the authorities were frightened of their popularity falling and so even at the peak of the crisis, they increased the pension. That policy is of course unsustainable.

It seems to me, and Yurgens and Gontmakher prevaricate when they say that the stagnation which Putin symbolizes is a social disaster. Any president after 2012 will have to review the state’s duties for social care from the point of view of reducing them. This process, incidentally, will lead a mechanism of political change that will push the government to reactive modernisation.

‘SP’: In other words, modernization will happen?

– I think reactive modernisation is inevitable- no matter who is president. It will not be modernization where Medvedev, playing the good king, comes down from on high with wonderful designs. It will be a forced reaction to the political system, which faces new challenges and needs to become more complex in order to survive.

In this sense, Putin is the more likely successor president. This would be a good things as he controls a larger power base, and he is able to implement much more serious measures than Medvedev.

‘SP’: Could the very fact that Medvedev will go in 2012 provoke a reaction in the West? For example, a drop in Russian stock markets?

This is Putin’s problem, associated with his political arrival. There are many possible alternatives. I do not think that Putin will return saying “Alright, now we’re returning to how it used to be!” He needs to increase his legitimacy so he can implement painful policy after 2012. Regardless, he needs to come up with some kind of message. One of the possibilities could be a statement affirming that Medvedev said all the right things. That they didn’t happen for various reasons, but that they garnered support within the country and also abroad and that now, Putin is ready to achieve all that Dimitry Medvedev tried, and failed, to do while leading the country

I think that the fears that Yurgens and Gontmakher shared are understandable and have grounds. But the predicted catastrophe will not happen.

‘SP’: So, the political system will become more liberal?

– I think so. After elections in 2012 the government will face increasing social activism and protest. Hence, two alternatives: to tighten the screws (for this there are neither the resources nor the desire of political elites), or to restore political competition and elements of federalism.

All the same I think that Putin blocked reforms (even though the political elite appealed to him) only because he had built a system where power was concentrated in his hands, but he himself was outside the official centre of power. Because of this, any political reforms could directly damage Putin himself as they affect the actual leader, as opposed to the official one. From this you will follow my explanation as to why Putin should be the next president. Political modernization is necessary and inevitable, but the main condition for its implementation is to combine the positions of the “official” leader of Russia, and the actual leader- in other words, a rejection of the tandem.

Another view

Evgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis:

– In my opinion, the directors of INSOR underestimate the skepticism that exists about Medvedev among Western elites. The advances given to him at the start of the presidency, have not been justified in the eyes of the West. For those Americans Medvedev proved to be insufficiently pro-American, weighed down by imperial relapses.

Also, I do not think that the West attaches great importance to the theoretical differences between Medvedev and Putin. Rather, there is a caveat associated with the turnover of power: it will not turn out well, if Putin will return. Although that is quite unfair: de Gaulle came to power, left, then returned again and it wasn’t catastrophic.

I do believe that with regard to complying with Western rules the most elegant move would be the simultaneous nomination of both Putin and Medvedev as candidates for the presidential election. That would fence of the electoral field to just themselves, they could compete, and whoever didn’t win the ruling elite would have remained even. At the same time, all the formal characteristics of the democratic process have been met. I think it’s quite a likely option.

“He very much wants to return to the Kremlin”

Curiously, the statements of the heads of the INSOR coincided with the publication in foreign media of reports of statements of certain Russian “politicians and diplomats,” as to who among the ruling tandem will stand for election in 2012. The Internet site linked Reuters in quoting the following people.

“I think Putin will be nominated, he probably has already decided for himself”, – said a top official. According to him, Putin is concerned that Medvedev, whom he knows more than 20 years, doesn’t have strong enough support among political and business elite and amongst the ordinary electorate. And this support is a must in order to maintain stability for the implementation of reform plans. Putin is supported by many more people than Medvedev. Medvedev has also overestimated its own “weight” within the system.

Another senior official confirmed: “Putin wants to return, he really wants to go back.” According to him, the prime minister was frustrated with Medvedev’s attempts to demonstrate his political independence and to establish himself in power. However, on a regular basis they communicate well enough, he added.

A third source also confirmed that Putin is close to making the decision to return to the Kremlin. The source tried to dispel fears that his return will result in a new period of harmful stagnation He suggested that, as president, Putin may well appoint a reformist prime minister.

What Jurgens and Gontmakher say

“… In fact one half of the ” tandem ” is agitating openly and politically for the continuation of the policy of stability, which in our specific conditions, has become synonymous with not even stagnation (this stage we have passed in the pre-crisis 2000s), but with the apparent degradation in all spheres of Russian life. Hence the creation of the All-Russia People’s Front (obviously an analogy with the defunct German “Democratic” Republic) who distribute left and right social promises that are not backed by any economic foundation.

And what about the other “presidential” half? We see attempts to move the situation from degradation to progress in combating corruption, improving the business climate, and the formation of an effective foreign policy. But the decisive turning point is not there like before. One gets the impression that even the most basic of Dmitry Medvedev’s actions on the path to modernization are not just drowned out, but outright sabotaged, even repudiated by his counteractions”

“… What happens when Dmitri Medvedev, due to some unknown reason refuses to contest the presidency in 2012? It’s safe to assume that the fact of a refusal of the current president to continue his functions would cause large-scale crisis in the country. The feeling of justice and fairness, long ago trampled by shameless corruption and the contemptuous behaviour of the government to its own people, oculd transform itself into an extremist reaction, similar to what happened in Manege. The collapse of the already weak economy will definitively undermine the material base of social existence. The large-scale process of supplanting free provision of education and health with paid services has already begun. We’ll have to place tough limits on pension expenses. In that case, to maintain the status quo, the authorities will have copy the tightening of the political regime in the style of our partners in the Union State [Belarus]. This is the price of maintaining “stability.” For this kind of economic, social and political disaster Vladimir Putin’s return to presidential office is not necessary- the nomination of a third candidate would be enough. If Dmitry Medvedev resigns from the race, the new candidate would inevitably emerge from the prime minister’s inner circle”

“… Perhaps the role of Russian reformer can be found in someone else? (Except for Medvedev – “SP”) Unfortunately, our political system is structured in such a way that we are facing a choice not between the leaders with varying programmes of modernization, but between two paths, strictly personalized, where “stabilization” is a synonym for stagnation, one of degradation- the inevitable national disaster and the other of modernisation, as a very risky, but not yet hopeless project “.

“The risk of the economy can make allies in big business keep quiet from time to time. Drastic measures to reduce the administrative burden on small and medium business … will attract the sympathy of this social stratum. Another reserve – the most advanced universities and research centers where our intellectual elite and the best part of our youth are focused, are concerning themselves with the situation in the country. “

“Dmitry Medvedev has to venture out and cross his own personal Rubicon, turning directly to society to jointly undertake the difficult work of pulling the country out of the swamp into which we all fell in together.”