Moving forward

As I followed the debate about President Dmitri Medvedev’s annual address to Russia’s parliament, one idea struck me as particularly pertinent: There is much in the president’s speech that is important and necessary, but one might think that it is addressed to a more comfortable country, living in more comfortable times.

Yet, more than the details of the speech, I’ve been thinking about the coming year. Next year is a pre-election year in Russia, and it looms as even more important than the elections themselves.

Unnoticed by many and denied by some — those who are against change and those who see Russia as ‘irreparably authoritarian’ — changes have been building up in Russian society that must have serious consequences for Russian politics. 2011 must therefore be the year of shaping a new agenda for Russia. The old one — the stabilisation agenda — has run its course.

In 2000, the top priority was to protect the country’s integrity and to restore governance. People supported President Vladimir Putin, who set those goals. One can argue about the means he used and the degree of success, but overall the goals were achieved.
With time, however, the unsolved problems became increasingly obvious. The global economic crisis made our problems worse, but it was not their root cause.

The crisis was not to blame for the fact that we were losing the momentum of the democratic process, or that we were stuck with a resource-based, inefficient economic model and were unable to stop the process of de-industrialisation. We were mostly dividing the pie rather than producing, building or growing. Nor was the crisis the cause of the corruption that penetrated all levels of the bureaucracy and was ravaging our society.

We had been living off oil and gas revenue, seeming to forget that those resources are not renewable. Even when world market conditions were favourable millions of people in Russia still lived in poverty.

The old agenda did not respond to the most urgent questions Russia faces today. Why? It all comes down to politics. We need a competitive democratic environment; we need sources of innovation at all levels; we need an active civil society and real accountability of government. If those conditions are present, even the most intractable problems can be solved.

Regional leaders are no longer elected; individual elections have been replaced by ‘party lists’; thresholds have been raised for parties to be represented in parliament, while the minimum turnout requirement for elections to be valid has been abolished.

What has made it all even worse is the blatant use of the ‘administrative resource,’ i.e. electoral manipulations and pressures on the media. The result? Channels of communication between government and people have been obstructed and the political elite has become increasingly insulated, serving its own interests.

Threatening proportions

Last summer, the symptoms of the government’s isolation from society and its unresponsiveness to signals from below began to assume threatening proportions. Something else was also happening: People became increasingly demanding, aware of their interests and capable of standing up for them. At the forefront are activists of civil society groups, journalists, environmentalists and people who have suffered at the hands of corrupt officials.

 If the anti-democratic tendency is not reversed, all the gains of the previous years — not just the democratic process but even the much vaunted stability — will be jeopardised.
The president also listed some steps that had been taken to make the political system more fair and competitive. As I see it, those steps are insufficient and inadequate to the urgency of the situation. But the fact that the president identified the challenge was of fundamental importance and was encouraging to those who care about the future of Russia.

President Medvedev’s speech contains elements that certainly must become part of the new Russian agenda. His emphasis on social policy and on curbing bureaucracy is welcome.

But without a clear political context, the speech sounded more like a list of assessments, tasks and suggestions addressed to the same Russian ‘elite’ that has already shown itself to be inert and inept. In the current form, our elite is an assembly of appointees who are not capable of shaping a new agenda, much less implementing it.

Among them, education is critically important. We have come to a point when the constitutional principle of universal access to education could become a dead letter. People are wondering: How is it that after World War II, when the country was lying in ruins and just rising to its feet, the government found a way to finance free education, whereas now the Russian state doesn’t have the money? Yet, parliament seems to think education is a non-issue.

There is another priority, which I have already mentioned: People are calling for effective mechanisms to fight corruption, which is increasingly a political problem, widening the chasm between the authorities and the people.

The new agenda should also contain a strong economic component. What we have now amounts to post-crisis management, patching the holes in the budget and launching separate initiatives in some areas where success is uncertain. We need a breakthrough: movement toward a modern knowledge economy and sustainable development. I see a direct link here with the problem of education.

I am convinced that President Medvedev should take the lead in shaping the new agenda for Russia. The people will support him.

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