Thursday, 19 February 2009

Will Medvedev allow government to become a dialogue with Russia's people?

Comment is Free carries an article by James Marson examining perceived discontent fomented by the economic crisis, in Russia. It is a more thoughtful piece than the brand of ‘perfidious Kremlin’ geopolitical waffle which most commentators are producing. Whilst the Federation is by no means the oppressive totalitarian state which is frequently depicted by western media, undeniably a more open, accountable approach would afford Russian democracy more air to breathe. Medvedev is by no means a lost cause in terms of steering his country towards that outcome.

I have previously insisted that Putinite notions of a ‘power vertical’ and ‘sovereign democracy’ are by no means as insidious as they have often been portrayed. In many respects they simply represent Russian solutions to Russian problems, drawing on a political tradition which differs dramatically from the experience in western Europe and the US. Against the backdrop of a huge, diverse state, Putinism has attempted to strengthen national party politics, bolster central institutions and standardise political rights and entitlements, associated with Russian citizenship, across a kaleidoscopic array of competing constitutional arrangements and claims on Moscow’s sovereignty.

Putin was bequeathed a Russia whose regions his predecessor urged to take ‘as much sovereignty’ as they could swallow. His policies were a rational, and at least partially successful, response to the difficulties which such irresponsibility precipitated. But Russia today faces a different set of challenges (albeit with many of the late 90s set ongoing). Putin has realised a structure which can deliver democracy yet diminishes the worst centrifugal effects which were inherent in Yeltsin’s Russia. It should now be possible to encourage the type of two way conversation which forms the most laudable component of flourishing democratic societies.

Despite what naysayers insist, there are signs that President Medvedev is prepared to enable that conversation. Marson’s article points out that he recently visited the editor of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, and investor Mikhail Gorbachev, to get their perspective on the country’s mood. Although Marson argues that this is an indictment of how closed off the presidency has become, his contention is a little mischievous. Undoubtedly the meeting indicates a willingness to engage with contravening voices. The President’s videoblog invites comments from its viewers and Siberian Sun highlights Medvedev’s candid admission that his administration’s ‘e government’ efforts are far from satisfactory.

I am a strong believer that Russia’s people should decide what form of government is most suited to them, and that their decision should be respected elsewhere. Thus far they have elected to keep faith with the Putinite model. If Russians' concerns are changing then its leadership should be responsive, otherwise it will lose popular backing it has thus far retained. And if that happens I will be as strong as anyone in my condemnation, if the present incumbents fail to step aside. As yet that is to deal in the counter-factual. Medvedev’s presidency remains in its early stages and it will be judged by how it deals with current difficulties and those yet to come.

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