It happens with political speeches: all right stuff is there, properly arranged, and the speech is well written and presented. And yet, it misses the mark. Sometimes, this is because the audience was wrong; sometimes, because the timing was off.
President Medvedev’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, his fourth and the last, clearly falls in the latter category. Had Medvedev delivered his speech on Nov. 12, 2009 – the day of his second presidential address and two months after publishing his once inspiring manifesto “Russia, forward!” — this speech could have become a turning point in the president’s attempts at modernizing the country’s political system. Delivered on Dec. 22, 2011, the speech is likely to be considered as a mere footnote to Medvedev’s presidency.
The very scope of Medvedev’s proposals – the direct election of regional governors, simplified procedures for registration of political parties and parliamentary and presidential candidates – lends credit to his claim that they were prepared well in advance of the address. However, by just stating that the current system “has exhausted itself,” Medvedev failed to explain why he had waited until he became a lame-duck president to come up with his proposals. Was it by his own choice or was he simply not allowed to act by others? Without such an explanation, Medvedev’s proposals look like a knee-jerk reaction to the mass protests that erupted after the Dec. 4 Duma elections, the protests that Medvedev unwisely called “foam” in his address.
But if the “disgruntled urban class” was the target of his overture, Medvedev has chosen the wrong audience, because the job of approving the presidential initiatives will fall on the 6th Duma, the legislative body considered illegitimate by the protest movement.
In Russia, the legal devil is not in the laws themselves, but in their implementation. Sure, you can dramatically reduce – from 45,000 to 500 — the number of people required to register a political party. However, if the very same bureaucrats in the Ministry of Justice will remain in charge of judging the “constitutionality” of any new political party’s charter – and, even more importantly, if the final decision on registration rests with the department of domestic politics of the presidential administration – then the new law on the registration of political parties will fail to create a free market of political ideas. Sure, you can make regional governors be elected by direct public vote – whether with or without a prior “presidential filter.” However, if a regional governor will have to beg Moscow for every ruble of taxes collected in the region, as is the case now, then he or she will remain the Kremlin’s appointee, whether publicly elected or not.
It’s not clear how successful Medvedev could have been in implementing his proposals. Regardless, he’ll be gone in May, and even if he manages to become the next head of the Cabinet – a prospect that is far from certain – it won’t be his job to oversee the process of political reforms. This job is likely to fall on Vladimir Putin, whose commitment to reforms – any reforms — is less than self-evident. And let’s not forget that the “reforms” outlined in Medvedev’s address are in essence the reversal of legislations implemented during Putin’s second presidential term. Therefore, until we clearly understand what Putin himself thinks about Medvedev’s proposals, nothing can be taken for granted.
And this is the most serious problem with Medvedev’s address: it might have been delivered by wrong person.