Medvedev, a hi-tech president

So, two years have passed, but the predicted quarrel never materialised. The reason for that was certainly not the absence of news. On the contrary, two years of president Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term were a difficult time for the country, a time of upheavals on both domestic and foreign fronts.

The war in Georgia in August 2008, global financial crisis, several “waves” of unemployment, an upsurge of violence in North Caucuses and now two terrorist acts in Moscow do not provide a rosy background for a “quiet presidency.” In similar circumstances, in the late Eighties members of the Soviet Union’s communist elite quarreled badly with each other, at a certain moment leaving the country rudderless and finally making the collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable.

Both Putin and Medvedev belong to two generations which lived through this period of Russian history, with their lives profoundly marked by the upheaval born out of a conflict inside the country’s elite. They witnessed the sad end of this elite, with some of its top members, once the masters of the country, living on meager post-Soviet pensions.

Before making Medvedev his successor in 2007, Putin obviously agreed with him not to make the country a hostage to the power ambitions of two men, as it was the case between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in 1991. So, whatever the differences between Putin and Medvedev, they so far manage to find consensus or at least to keep the divisions “in the house,” much to the distress of “sympathetic” Russia watchers in East European countries and other countries further to the West.

Eagerly expecting the two men’s quarrel for power, Russia’s “sympathisers” in the West in fact prevent this quarrel by their own policies. Attempts to sideline Russia as a source of energy for the rest of Europe and an important transit country, constant “Russia bashing” at international forums and in the media destroy any Gorbachev-style illusions about “Western help” if Medvedev ever nurtured them.

Finding a consensus with the premier, however, did not mean that Medvedev would limit his reformist ambitions. As a lawyer, Medvedev tackled Russia’s worst problems, long neglected by successive Kremlin administrations: police brutality, a slow and ineffective justice system, the appalling situation in some of the prisons, corruption in law-enforcement bodies.

As the president, Medvedev has enormous powers in the sphere of personnel policy and he did not hesitate to use them. In the last six months alone, Medvedev made more firing orders than Putin in the first five years of his presidency. The head of the federal prison service, the chief of Moscow police, the top figures in Russia’s sports establishment – some of these people had the reputation of being “irremovable” until Medvedev signed his decrees. Insistence on strict executive discipline, making state officials pay with their position for neglect of their duties – these are Medvedev’s own qualities, running counter to the tradition of cozy camaraderie which flourished in Russia’s state service since the mid-Nineties.

Being a modern man, Medvedev is trying to put technology at the service of democracy, eagerly embracing the ideas of “electronic government,” digital television and internet revolution. In fact, technology has already done important service to democracy in Russia. All cases of misconduct by state officials (“forgotten” car accidents with the participation of influential people or their relatives, abuse of powers by policemen, etc.) immediately become topics of hot debate and video exchange on the internet, with Medvedev, himself an ardent blogger, never failing to take an action in the framework of his powers. In his interview to Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria several months ago, Medvedev said that in the internet connected world there can be no “forbidden subjects,” and Russia is no exception from this rule.

One could not agree more with the president. In the modern world, being a president on the internet is sometimes even more important than being the president in your own warm presidential office.

Dmitry Babich is a RIA Novosti commentator.

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