A new pluralism

There you have it. As I blogged last week, Dmitry Medvedev seems to have moved towards the reintroduction of direct gubernatorial elections. At least, this is what the President’s latest statements suggest. Also, the effective removal of Valentina Matvienko from the position of St. Petersburg governor seems to confirm the idea that a thorough (if only virtual) revamp of the system of the regional administration is planned. Matviyenko’s dismissal has been cooking for some time now (for the exact same reasons as in the case of Yuriy Luzhkov and Georgy Boos), but she was apparently more clever than the former Moscow mayor, and – after some “waffling” – accepted a position that is officially higher than her previous one (and which, without any doubts, has been offered to Luzhkov as well). There are still a lot of questions unanswered – including that of the person who will take over Matvienko’s seat in August – but the way that Medvedev seems to be going is clear, and this can only indicate that the President is slowly but surely forming his electoral programme.

As Brian Whitmore of The Power Vertical has also pointed out, the editorial of Monday’s NezGaz is a clear indication that something has started and the President’s – so far unspoken – ideas are being prepared for in the public. The article basically calls for a reform of political representation in Russia, which implicates a reform of gubernatorial elections.
The newly elected head of the Right Cause party, Mikhail Prokhorov was more blunt – mind you, he was quite possibly dealt this very role – at the party’s convention. Obliquely, he echoed the President’s recent statement against central manual governance by saying that “The presidential power is the only one that works here. This kind of governance cannot provide stability, let alone development.” He said it as the chairman of an opposition party should, but the message is clear.
But Medvedev wanted to be even clearer. The President received the freshly elected chairman on Monday, to discuss the party’s plans. The purpose was, of course, to underline that Medvedev is willing to support some of the “progressive ideas” set out by Prokhorov. As it is often the case in Russian politics, of course, these things could not be said in a straightforward way. Still, according to the transcript of the meeting, Prokhorov and the President did not care too much to disguise the main point. He started with the totally absurd idea of reserving 25% of parliamentary seats for “talented people”, but right after that, he quickly got to the point, that is, to the reintroduction of direct gubernatorial elections (and direct mayoral elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg).
And what was Medvedev’s response? He reminded Prokhorov that his ideas “on some points” corresponded with his own ones, and recalled the St. Petersburg Forum, where – as I pointed out – he, indirectly, has already spoken about direct gubernatorial elections. What a coincidence, isn’t it? Medvedev made clear that in this field, he wants to draw a clear line between the future and the past, when the government “had to tighten the screws” in order to “get instructions carried out”, meaning a clear line between centrally appointed governors lacking public legitimacy and requiring “manual control” and a system to be instated. He added that, of course, Prokhorov’s ideas will require “careful interpretation”. Yes, thanks, we got the message. It won’t be a quick reform, but it will look exactly like one. Just as I suggested a week ago, by the way.
Not so long ago I downplayed the significance of Right Cause, after Prokhorov was “selected” to lead the party. True, I still don’t think that Right Cause will be a governing party, in the traditional sense of the word. It could have happen if Aleksey Kudrin or Igor Shuvalov had taken over its leadership. But even if Right Cause will never become the biggest party in Russia, as Prokhorov says he plans it, it may still have a very important function: it will voice ideas that are considered radical by a significant part of the elite, and will allow Dmitry Medvedev to play the role of the honest broker who tries to strike a balance between reckless reformers and hawkish hardliners.
A task that proved to be too demanding for Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago. I wonder if times have changed since then.
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