After a long pre-summer recess, I finally have the time to react on the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and especially on the speech given by Dmitry Medvedev. The President’s intervention lasted slightly more than 30 minutes, contrary to the much hyped press conference in May that stretched on for more than 2 hours. Yet, I dare to say, this speech was the strongest indication so far that Medvedev wants to retain power and he is willing to give the ruling elite tangible reasons why he should be the candidate next year. It was also an important contribution to the debate about the the revamp of the Russian political and economic system, a notion that Medvedev pretty much seems to have embarked on and will make it the core of his campaign. In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to argue why the St. Petersburg speech had a considerable significance in view of the forthcoming elections and what it has to do with some other exciting analytic material Russia-watchers could lay their hands on during the last couple of weeks.
I know it’s a cheap, and, in many ways, unjustified way of getting attention, but it should be said that Medvedev’s speech was in multiple points very similar to the 1985 speech of Mikhail Gorbachev speaking about the need for reforms that later got famous as the perestroika. Gorbachev then called for “an acceleration in growth” which could be best achieved by “swifter scientific and technological progress” as well as “revamping the governance and planning, structural and investment policy, being more organised and disciplined and radically improving the way of governance.” Medvedev now criticised the economic model of the last 10 years saying that “it has exhausted”, adding that growth is “very dependent on conjunctures”, and especially that there are “low levels of investment and entrepreneurial activity” in industries dominated by state giants. He also called for an increased decentralisation of the government – that is, a radical improvement. This would, of course, not be the first time Medvedev sounding bewilderingly like Gorbachev. He has already used deliberately the words of the former GenSec in speeches. But let’s get past this.
First of all, I found most interesting the part where the President spoke about the problem of “manual control” (ruchnoye upravlenie). In the past few weeks, this concept was brought up and scolded several times by both Medvedev and Putin. It essentially means that the Russian system of governance is top-heavy, most petty jobs require an approval from the President or the Prime Minister and something should be done about this. Overlooking the otherwise undeniable fact that by saying this, Medvedev criticised a system created under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, I see another, much more interesting point in this. I think we can assume now that Medvedev’s main policy line will be the fight against corruption, and one of his main promises: the return of the election of governors, a step that would accompany a gradual decentralisation of decision-making. It is obvious that this is still one of the biggest issues in Russian politics, moreover, it is very popular with citizens – mainly at the countryside, where Medvedev is traditionally less popular -, would fit wonderfully into the ongoing process of replacing old governors with new ones, and, most of all, it can be carried out in a safe way, either by hiding a trick in the system (which would not be a surprise in Russia), and/or by creating a strong party union that keeps elected governors under control. Oh, wait, isn’t there one already, called All-Russia Popular Front?
Medvedev also carried on his argument about the necessity of a weaker role of the state in the country’s economy. This is, certainly, no news. The process has already started with the announcement of the 1 July deadline for government officials to leave the boards of state companies. A reform which, as we see, progresses in quite a shy way, which can be, and has been interpreted both as a compromise of the elites or a sign of inner siloviki resistance. Nevertheless, in St. Petersburg, by saying that “Russian economy should be dominated by private enterprise and investors”, and calling the present system “dangerous for the country’s future”, the President underlined that he did mean the reform.
Most of all, Medvedev was alone (without Putin present), and was talking to his own chaps: investors, businessmen and foreign statesmen. He spoke to those from whom the Russian elite (including Putin) expects to save the country by investing and diversifying an economy that the IMF recently called still disappointingly dependent on commodities. Medvedev (and in a less spectacular way, Stanislav Voskresensky, the government’s point man for foreign investment), wanted to reassure investors that they ought not to fear from the return of the “state capitalism”. The President, quite understandably, linked this message to his own person.
And then again: in what position would Medvedev stay in charge (even virtually) if not as President? Obviously, he cannot take over the Prime Minister’s position if the parliamentary majority is constituted by an organisation built exclusively around Vladimir Putin. Even more obviously, he cannot be the reinforced Secretary of the Security Council or occupy any other “background” position exactly because he’s the face of those reforms that investors expect.
Thus, I can honestly say that the St. Petersburg speech has been the most “presidential” speech of Medvedev lately, and the approving absence of Putin confirms that even more. Tiles slowly seem to assemble to form a big picture. Of course, if we believe the findings of this very interesting report by Chatham House which voices an idea I have blogged about before – namely that “the tandem”, while still prevalent in political communication, has organisationally given way to a “team” of influential officials and businessman who will decide among themselves about the presidential candidate – then the entente cordiale between Putin and Medvedev will not be enough. Medvedev must convince the majority of them that he and his policies are the only way to go.
Something, that may turn out to be tougher than convincing actual voters. Medvedev, for a change could maybe get another old recipe from another political veteran and say: “It’s the economy, stupid!”