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April 17, 2009

New Signs from Russia
Posted by James Lamond

Last year when Dmitri Medvedev became president of Russia there where many questions about who he was and who would actually be in charge.  Analysts are still split on many of these issues including how much power Medvedev actually has.  Probably the most important question was whether or not Medvedev was a more reform-minded leader than his predecessor.   While I certainly do not know the answer to this, and I don’t think anyone actually does, lately there have been some real promising signs, although they may have more to do with the economic crisis that Medvedev's own reformist ambitions.

President Medvedev held his first interview with a Russia newspaper this week, and chose the Novaya Gazeta.  The Novaya Gazeta, known to be highly critical of the Kremlin, is one of the few opposition voices in Moscow.  It is owned, in part, by Gorbachev and is the paper of four journalists murdered over the past few years, including the highly publicized Anna Politkovskaya.

Medvedev has apparently also made moves to open up civil society and to change the way that NGOs are regulated.  Yesterday at a meeting with civil society groups he said that  "A significant number of officials, which I think is quite dangerous, have got a sense that non-governmental organizations are enemies of the state which must be confronted to prevent some disease from seeping through and undermining the foundations of our order.” He also said that "It is not a secret that the idea of human rights activity is seriously distorted in our country. It stems from our history and certain ideological foundations.”

In addition Medvedev has made progress in repairing relations with the West.  His recent meeting with President Obama proved fruitful agreeing on new negotiations for a nuclear arms treaty and general agreement on cooperation on international policy.  He also recently said that a security framework for Europe does not need to include the dissolution of NATO.  Russia even lifted the lifted tight security restrictions that have been in force in Chechnya for 10 years, which critics say allowed for human rights violations.

This is not to say that Medvedev is some great reformer. But these are big changes (at least on the public stage) from what Putin had said as president.  They may very simply be optics.  They may be a good cop bad cop routine choreographed between Medvedev and Putin. The interview with Novaya Gazeta may just be a response to a growing lack of trust in Russian states news, especially on economic matters. 

Or they may be  due to the Russian government's concern that it will not be able to handle the shock of the economic crisis-especially considering the drop in oil prices and its impact on Russia.  As Arkady Ostrovsky writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy:

“In 1929, the Soviet Union was mostly isolated from the global shocks of the Great Depression. That is not true today. The current economic crisis has hit Russia hard, exposing its institutional weaknesses and the fragility of its success. The drop in the price of oil and the seizing up of capital markets are choking Russia’s economy, which has relied on petrodollars and cheap credit. Economies have been hit all over the world, but nowhere, it seems, has the reversal been as dramatic as in Russia.

"Confidence in the rule of a wealthy, heavy-handed Russian state has been shaken, and it is now a real possibility that the global economic crisis, as it persists and even intensifies, could cause Putin’s social contract to unravel…"

If the Putin’s social contract- that he provides Russia with wealth and national pride in return for authoritarian power- is falling apart, could these gestures towards civil society by Medvedev be a concession? An attempt to send a message that the economy is failing but restrictions on liberties and democracy will be lightened? According to Ian Bremmer’s (the godfather of political risk) J-Curve argument, this would be the time for an authoritarian government to tighten control and cut off contact with the outside world- so that the regime can weather the current storm.  But Russia may be different case because there is such a strong view in Russia of the inverse relationship between stability and political liberalization/economic privatization resulting from the turmoil of the 1990s and the apparent restoration of Russia under Putin's authoritarian rule.  With the economy the way it is in Russia this perceived correlation, which Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss call the “Myth of the Authoritarian Model,” is being disproved. If the Russian government can no longer provide the prosperity of the last decade, during the era of high oil prices, does this mean that the government will seek democratic reforms?


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Obama's consideration of at least scrapping missile defense if it doesn't work and his promise to cut the American nuclear arsenal has more to do with Medvedev's accomandating attitude toward the Americans. I personally believe that the economic downturn has nothing to do with this new openess with the West. In fact a downward economy could have also pressed Medvedev to become more aggressive with the West in order to distract public opinion or appease the nationalists in Russia. I just hope that those who believe in the economic motive for Medvedev's actions do not push the Obama adminstration in taking a more hardline approach to Moscow becasue they think that somehow the Russians will blink.

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