Velvet reform

President Dmitry Medvedev's recent manifesto ("Forward, Russia!") was published while the Valdai Club experts visited Russia and met with him and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

As both Putin and Medvedev declared their interest in running in the 2012 elections, it became the main political scoop of that week. The Medvedev manifesto appeared as his electoral platform for a second presidential bid, and the first clear statement of his disagreements with Putin, his political mentor.

The article diagnosed severe ills in Russia, including corruption, dependence on oil and gas exports, lack of economic innovation, a lousy law enforcement and court system and a demographic decline. These all sound like a "liberal reformer" political platform.

The article also includes somewhat cautious and vague prescriptions. It is clear that Medvedev is a conservative reformer, who, like Gorbachev before him, believes at this point that no radical personnel changes are necessary. But reform in Russia doesn't work that way.

There is a discernible pattern in the ebb and flow of Russian socioeconomic changes. First, reform has occurred after Russia suffered military defeats, and/or when the energy of public protest has built up.

Second, successful reform has been usually top-down. Its also been implemented with a strong hand-at times brutally, but nevertheless met with public support. The reformers who tried a "soft touch" are not remembered kindly.

Let's go a few centuries back. The profound westernization of Russian society forced by Peter the Great (reign 1682-1725) laid the foundations of the catch-up development paradigm still alive today. He built a Western-style army and navy, which defeated two regional competitors, the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. He launched the Academy of Sciences, and implanted French as the language of nobility.

Russia has become the "defining other" of Europe, in the words of the Russian historian Alexei Miller. It's either the "barbarian at the gate" or the "eternal pupil."

After the 1850s, with Russia falling behind, the boundaries were expanding mostly to the east. To this day, Putin defines the success of a Russian ruler by whether he left Russia larger than he received it.

Russia developed quickly after liberation of its serfs by Alexander II. Yet the monarchy failed to provide a constitution and thus signed its own death warrant. The extremism of the Bolshevik revolution and repression exacted a price few nations could pay and survive.

The way out came with Mikhail Gorbachev, with glasnost, perestroika and acceleration. But many still accuse Gorbachev of "losing" the Soviet empire, as if it was salvageable.

Boris Yeltsin and his team of liberal reformers, who introduced privatization and economic liberalization in the early 1990s, are also neither loved nor thanked, although today the stores are full, and one can own property and engage in business.

Some are thankful that Gorbachev and Yeltsin abolished book censorship, restored freedom of religion and allowed foreign travel. Yet many justly complain about pervasive corruption and the roll-back of democracy under Putin. Attitude towards past reformers is a litmus test in Russia. Medvedev repeatedly criticized Peter the Great as too heavy-handed, whereas Putin in the past glorified him. Perhaps Medvedev should focus on "enemies," external and internal, in order to gain true popular support?

We have yet to see if reform in Russia can succeed without fear. It clearly can't succeed without improving relations with the West. Messrs. Putin and Lavrov have not offered any quid pro quo to Barack Obama's stunning reversal on missile defense in Europe, and ruled out Russian support of the UN Security Council's Iran sanctions. Yet Medvedev, in his UN General Assembly Address, tentatively allowed for a sanction contingency.

Without Western, and especially U.S., capital, know-how and economic cooperation, Russian reforms are likely to fail. And they are sure to wither without a clearly mobilized and articulated support from the masses and elites.

President Medvedev knows that-and so do his political enemies.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Catherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

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