All The President’s Messages

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

President Dmitry Medvedev’s passion for social networking as a means of communication, including his experiments with video blogging or tweeting, nicely fits his image of a modern, technology savvy, politician. Yet when it comes to delivering important messages, he often falls back on more traditional venues: public speeches and media interviews.

There have been a few of those over the past two weeks. On Jan. 26, Medvedev addressed the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, and before the trip, he gave extended interviews to Vedomosti and Bloomberg TV.  There was one more, unplanned, speech the day before: in the wake of the terrorist act at the Domodedovo airport, Medvedev spoke at the FSB headquarters.  Finally, on Feb. 1, Medvedev met with his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights; the transcript of the meeting has been posted to Medvedev’s website. The scope of these messages and their forward-looking content leaves little doubt about their meaning: Medvedev has started his re-election campaign.

As a presidential candidate, Medvedev differs from his two predecessors.  The main theme of President Yeltsin re-election campaign in 1996 was a fear of the Communist revanche.  Candidate Vladimir Putin ran on the danger of Russia’s disintegration; later, as president, Putin capitalized on a sense of growing stability and prosperity.  In contrast to Yeltsin and Putin — and somewhat more like presidential candidates in the United States — Medvedev runs on "issues."

Four such major issues could be identified: modernization, corruption, law enforcement reform and child welfare.

Medvedev’s modernization drive has its roots in his belief that Russia has already exhausted the natural resources basis for its economic growth.  Medvedev easily admits that his modernization efforts have so far produced no "outstanding successes."  Yet, he insists that some "positive things" did happen.  Among these, he characteristically mentioned a new legislation aimed at regulating industrial technological standards.  This is very typical for Medvedev, who, a lawyer by education and prior experience, is almost obsessed with a legislative "backup" for any reform.

Medvedev seems to sincerely believe that there is an increasing recognition among Russia's elites and in society in general that there is no alternative to modernization.  As he said to the Russian daily Vedomosti: "[N]o one tells me anymore that everything is fine…Representatives of different political parties, the ruling and opposition alike, understand that without economic modernization…we won’t do anything." And further: "I hope that the majority of our citizens do recognize that we have exhausted the raw resources potential for economic growth."

Medvedev’s optimism is quite understandable given his desire to deliver a "positive" political message. Yet, he comes across as a bit naïve here. Russian bureaucrats, along with "representatives of different political parties", long ago learned the trade of never telling the Boss what the Boss doesn’t want to hear.  And as far as ordinary citizens are concerned, meetings and demonstrations demanding modernization have yet to take place on the streets of Russian cities.

Medvedev can hardly show any "outstanding successes" in his campaign against corruption, either. Moreover, it is possible to argue that there is something almost Don Quixotian in his anti-corruption drive.  Medvedev reinforced this image when he recalled, in the Vedomosti interview, that he was advised, early in his presidency, not to take on the issue of corruption.  His advisors correctly pointed out that corruption couldn’t be really tackled within the span of a single presidential term and that the inevitable lack of results will only create a mismatch between president’s promises and the reality. Nevertheless, Medvedev has decided to take on corruption anyway.

Medvedev’s willingness to address difficult issues that are unsolvable in the short run may appear counterintuitive, almost irrational, given that he’s running for re-election. Yet, there is something intrinsically pragmatic, commonsensical in his approach.  By pointing to Russia’s long-standing, systemic problems, Medvedev is raising the bar of public expectations of what the next president of Russia will have to tackle.  Medvedev’s message is that he is up to the task.  Now, anyone running against Medvedev, either in the primaries or in general election, would have to match these expectations.

Recently, a new topic has joined the list of Medvedev’s election campaign issues: the guilty verdict in the second KhodorkovskyLebedev trial.  Interestingly, Medvedev hasn't tried to avoid the issue in public discussions, as could be expect.  On the contrary, Medvedev seems to welcome any opportunity to discuss it.  His messaging, however, is somewhat different for the external and internal audiences.  In the interview with Bloomberg TV, Medvedev went on the offensive and compared Khodorkovsky to Bernard Madoff, but during the meeting with his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, the word "pardon" appeared, albeit in passing.  Moreover, Medvedev has caused a mini-sensation, having requested an expert legal opinion on the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev verdict.

Medvedev is certainly aware that the people who care about the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev case will not make or break his re-election bid.  Yet those are the people who, should Medvedev get re-elected, will become the most active supporters of his reform agenda.

So far, Medvedev hasn’t been talking systematically about the threat of terrorism.  Given that Russians seem to have accepted that one major terrorist act will occur every year, Medvedev’s reaction – an occasional speech followed by firing a few middle-ranked officials – might turn out to be adequate.  But how will Medvedev respond if the acts of terror in Russia become more frequent? He must understand that in the atmosphere of increasing terrorist threat, voters will reject his modernization agenda and demand a "stabilization" president, which he is not.  And all the president’s messages won’t help to put this Humpty Dumpty back on the wall.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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13 Responses to All The President’s Messages

  1. Mark says:

    I like the Medvedev-Putin team for Russia, and honestly can’t see an appetizing alternative. Boris Nemtsov? Ha, ha; sorry. It’s probably rude to laugh. There’s always the possibility a killer team will emerge between now and then who will capture the public’s imagination with their transformational vision for Russia, but I have to say I’m not optimistic. I fully expect challengers to run on platforms of what a crappy job Medvedev/Putin has done rather than what a great job they would do. If Nemtsov provides any standard to forecast by, I’ll be right.
    I think Medvedev is exactly the sort of politician the west always said it wanted for Russia. Of course, being the west, they’ve decided since that they want something completely different, and that Medvedev’s candor, admission of error and pushes for reform are weak and ineffectual, not what they wanted at all. What they really want is another hardcore autocrat like Putin, so they can bitch about what a hardcore autocrat he is.
    Medvedev is right that Russia must modernize, because globalization is not going to go away and Russia’s clumsy, antiquated processes for addressing foreign investment are a deterrent to it. However, he will be careful not to give foreign investors too much clout – something I’d be nervous about in the case of other contenders, like Nemtsov.
    Candidates will have to run against a record of improvement in Russia and, while the country still has a considerable way to go, rivals have no such record they can point to. I don’t see it being much of a contest.

    • Shinta says:

      , I don’t expect much cirtical thinking from Open Democracy’s authors; they are selected by other criteria )It was always clear to me that Medvedev’s liberal modernization doesn’t enjoy the same publis support as Putin’s social-democratic paternalism. However, in the situation when either man can win the presidency without any real opposition from the outside , the final decision with regards to 2012 belongs to elites. For some time, I felt that Putin would support Medvedev’s position and try to line up the elites accordingly. Recently, I began to feel that Putin, while really supporting Medvedev personally, doesn’t support his modernization platform. Hence my hypothesis that Putin is trying to mold Medvedev in his (and his UR) preferred shape. Postponing the Decision time is just one of the ways of avieving that.Somehow, I doubt that Medvedev will assume the PM position should Putin become president. I feel that Medvedev gave the interview to Dozhd for a reason. There he mentioned a lot of potential post-Kremlin opportunities (Skolkovo, academia, media), but government was characteristically ignored. Call it crazy, but I have a gut feeling that if Medvedev realizes that he’s up to the second term as a junior partner in a tandem, he won’t run. His wife won’t let him Best,Eugene

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark,
    I obviously agree that there is no contest between Medvedev/Putin (or a third person agreed upon by the two) and anyone else, the least of all Nemtsov. (However, some people in Moscow speculate that he’ll be allowed to run to give the next election a clout of legitimacy.)
    From this point of view, Medvedev doesn’t really have to fight much for the votes of ordinary people (and for these, he has the child wellfare theme). But he needs to fight for the support of political elites. Otherwise, his second term may turn out to be as unproductive as the first. The elites oscillating against Putin don’t need any modernization: they milk enough dough on oil and gas. But the elites who’re interested in modernization and could support Medvedev are more liberal than Sechin & Co. To win over them, Medvedev must offer them something — without completely allienating the “conservatives” and ordinary voters.
    That’s my interpretation of somewhat mixed messages that Medvedev is sending of late.

  3. Mark says:

    No doubt your interpretation is correct – Medvedev does need the support of the elites to pursue a modernization agenda, and to do so he’d have to convince them there’s just as much money to be made by modernizing as there is in leaving the status quo undisturbed. I’m not sure he can do that, because I’m not sure it’s true. But I believe they could be made to see that pursuing the latter course is eating their seed corn; after it finally runs out, there’ll be no fallback. He might be able to seduce the younger elites who are not so bitterly opposed to change. In any case, he doesn’t need them to win elections.
    I don’t know what a “stabilization president” would look like, but it wouldn’t be any of the current crop of contenders. Russians are certainly smart enough to know no leader could truthfully promise them protection against terrorists without turning the place into a police state and taking away every shred of personal freedom and privacy. That’d be a victory for the terrorists in itself, without having to spend any money or take any risks.
    I think the Medvedev/Putin team would pocket a significant terrorism dividend if they could get that troll Umarov in a particularly gruesome fashion. Russians want him dead, and any martyrdom he achieved among his own followers would be offset by the resultant leadership vacuum. Worth it. Maybe alive would work too, but I’d suggest that’s unlikely.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    By “stabilization” president, I actually mean Putin. I made this distinction (“modernization” president vs. “stabilization” president) some time ago ( and still believe in its value.
    As for Umarov, sure, this will be a huge PR victory. However, I remember the celebrations when Basayev was killed. It looked like that was it, the end of the terror. Well, some few years later, we’re talking about Umarov.

  5. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    A strategically balanced text. I have to agree that fighting corruption with the help of the law enforcement who believes it should be addressed as “Sir” (-s) needs much more than a life span of a mortal human.
    I liked your question in the last paragraph . Indeed, what will he do if..? .. Speaking of which – it seems that you missed Ignatius’s in your December WP review.. 🙂

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Igor,
    As someone who read Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin, I’m ready to admit that corruption in Russia didn’t start with Medvedev. Or even Putin. And it won’t go away if they register the Party of People’s Freedom.
    Missed Ignatius? Oops!!!:)

  7. Igor says:

    In one of Heinlein’s novels, the father & his daughter discuss the Ten Commandments & when coming to “Thou shall not steal”, the conversation goes like that: “But why won’t you steal? You are smart; you can probably get away with stealing all your life..” The reply was something like “Because I am fucking stinking proud”. That’s what they lost completely & totally since Gogol: the pride.

  8. Eugene says:

    As they say, pride is the FIRST deadly sin…

  9. Leo says:

    Medvedev’s modernization drive, however commendable, smacks of Soviet-style campaings implemented “from above” (uskorenie, anyone?). What I think should be implemented “from above” are the conditions that would unlock Russia’s potential and enable modernization “from below” to flourish. In no particular order these are:
    – “Long” money of Russia’s oligarchs. Some of them are ambitious industrialists so why not utilize the energy of Rockefeller wannabe’s for Russia’s modernization? With K&L in jail one can’t expect them (oligarchs not in jail that is) to push hard to realize their ambitions in Russia. Just as a side note, Yukos (for all its real and perceived faults) was building a state-of-the-art R&D facility in the early 2000’s and tried to create opportunites for re-pats. Had that endeavor borne fruit, would it be reasonable to assume that others would follow suit?
    – SME development. No need to tell anyone how difficult it is for those to function in Russia. Yet, SMEs are responsible for major part of technical innovation of late. And create jobs in the meantime.
    – Infrastructure: the yellow Kalina still needs bridges and asphalt to drive from Moscow to Vladivostok.
    – And in the “human” sphere modernization requires a completely different degree of trust between economical entities and between people in general. And trust of both in government institutions. Complex products high up in the value chain require a network of long-term business relationships.
    This is not Peter against conservative Moscovians – I don’t see resistance “from below” to the measures I described. Yet, in Medvedev’s approach RF’s government becomes the financial backer, guarantor and stakeholder of Skolkovo and possibly other projects. For better or worse, Russia is much bigger than Skolkovo.
    All the best,

  10. Eugene says:

    Hi Leo,
    I’m not a great fan of Skolkovo myself, either. And yet, I believe that Russia with Skolkovo will be better than without. There is at least one pragmatic consideration: it’s possible through Vekselberg and Kornberg to decently control how money is spent in Skolkovo. It’s impossible — for now and for the foreseable future — to prevent massive theft of money from the road and bridge construction.
    Now, does Skolkovo have a chance to become Russia’s Silicon Valley. No. Silikon Valley is private enterprenership in its best. On the other hand, we have here at least one example of state-sponsored innovation: the NIH.
    In summary: sure, Medvedev needs to improve Russia’s infrastructure (“modernization” is an obvious misnomer here), yet having a pet project like Skolkovo won’t hurt.
    Thanks for your welcome as always comments,

  11. Leo says:

    Yes, there are government-sponsored innovation institutions in the US, such as national labs, but they are not the ones commercializing innovations. It is private business that does that, frequently as small startups (hence my note about small-medium enterprise). Start-ups that “make it” may be bought by larger companies. Or large companies can license technology from national labs.
    Skolkovo of course can’t hurt, I am just at a loss how exactly it is going to help Russia wean its dependence on natural resource exports. Is Skolkovo envisoned as an academic research center that would parallel those anemic (mostly) RAS Institutes (and enable the latter to die of natural causes)? Or will it become something similar to IBM’s R&D Center, then who (what) will serve as IBM proper? That’s totally unclear to me.
    The problems I listed in my original note are structural in nature and they will impede commercialization and practice of anything emanating from Skolkovo, no matter how “paradigm-shifting” the latter discoveries may be. Every Popov needs his Marconi.
    All the best,

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    To the extent I know (and, admittedly, I don’t know much), Skolkovo is supposed to be a technology park of sorts hosting small innovation-oriented companies which will be given tax breaks and access to venture capitals. How their future innovation will be commercialized, I don’t know.
    Again, I’m not a huge fun of Skolkovo, but I do believe that it’s better to have Skolkovo than another state corporation which Medvedev will try, at the threat of firing its CEO, to force doing “innovation.”
    Skolkovo is not going to help Russia wean its dependence on export of raw materials. Nothing will. For as long as Russia has them, it will sell them. The question, though, is what will Russia have (or don’t) when the natural resources come to an end. In the meantime, hopefully, innovations initiated at Skolkovo will help create new consumer products that would boost domestic spending and reduce Russia’s dependence on import of elementary things.
    Best Regards,

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