An extra mile for Medvedev?

In the last few weeks, President Medvedev has made intriguing comments on the most intriguing puzzle of recent Russian politics - how far will he go in democratising society? Reassuring statements started in early September, with the publication of his letter "Russia, Forward!", which promised a bigger role for Russia's fledgling political parties, more openness to international scrutiny and "a modern, effective justice system".

The vigour in these promises led observers to think he was not happy with the status quo, fuelling speculation about a rift between Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. However, Medvedev insisted that "his" democratisation will be different from the reforms of the early Ninieties, and avoided direct criticism of Putin's eight-year presidential tenure. This line was continued in a CNN interview, 10 days after the letter's publication.

In the interview, Medvedev gave an indirect clue to his understanding of democracy. Answering a question about Russia's alleged regression on democratic reforms, Medvedev said: "I think the current political system, party system and system of putting governors in office are more democratic than what we had in the Nineties. Why? Because this system is more stable and provides better protection for the population's interests."

Many sociologists note that Russians tend to view their political system pragmatically. Instead of defending abstract principles of freedom and pluralism, they prefer to judge by effects on the local economy and security. If results are good, Russians reconcile themselves to authoritarianism and certain undemocratic methods. Medvedev's praise of the current system for its pragmatic achievements reflects the prevailing attitude in the country.

Governors in Russia were elected by direct popular vote until 2004, when Putin proposed choosing them by presidential suggestion and then a secret vote in the regional legislature. The president's special powers, such as the right to remove a governor without approval of the local legislature, were justified by the need to protect national unity in view of increasing terrorist threats. Under Medvedev, who came to power in 2008, the system was slightly modernised: gubernatorial candidates are first suggested for presidential approval by the strongest party in the local legislature. There are mixed views on these innovations.

"The situation varies between regions," said Alexey Makarkin, deputy general director of the Centre for Political Technologies. "The new system facilitated removal of leaders who had become an impediment to development. In the Pskov region, the new 34-year-old governor, Andrei Turchak, who has led big companies since his 20s, is seen as an organisational genius. But there are other, more negative examples - it is difficult to generalise."

However, many observers don't see how, with this method of appointing governors, Medvedev can keep his promise of making the political system "open, flexible and internally sophisticated".

"Sooner or later we shall return to a system of direct elections. There is simply no other way forward," said Igor Bunin, general director of the Centre for Political Technologies.

Direct and fair elections are also necessary to establish a system where "parliamentary parties periodically replace each other at the wheel of power". This presidential idea included the promise to create a situation where "parties and their coalitions will form the federal and regional bodies of executive power (and not vice versa)". "And not vice versa", even in parentheses, is important: a lot of political parties are viewed as "projects" of powerful state officials, who use these "institutions of civil society" for their own purposes.

In his CNN interview, Medvedev touched upon the main problem impeding development of a multi-party system in Russia. Abused first by a handful of powerful businessmen and, later, by state interference and cumbersome registration procedures, Russia's party political system has failed to become a real asset to the population - something worth fighting or working for.

"People lack initiative, they don't use their own political rights," Medvedev complained. In his letter, Medvedev said that, this year, the country started "moving to the creation of a new political system" and cited simplified procedures for party registration as an example. However, the much-touted reduction of the "membership minimum" from 50,000 to 45,000 has failed to produce a sense of revitalisation. Some analysts think simply giving more power to the parties may lead to an opposite result.

"The problem is that powerful state officials may use the increased role of parties to increase their own power," commented Oleg Smolin, a member of the opposition Communist faction in the State Duma. "Since the only way of getting to a local legislature is via political parties, they may use party discipline to control deputies, making them toe the party line during votes. In my opinion, the main responsibility of a deputy is before voters, not a party structure. People for whom democracy is not a value may turn even such a bright idea into a parody."

Dmitry Babich is RIA Novosti commentator.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

This website uses cookies. Click here to find out more.

Accept cookies