On “s” Words and “i” Words

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Dmitri Medvedev’s speech to the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum might be an indication of what he has in store for Russia. Before a crowd of Russian businessmen, Medvedev laid out his vision in a forty minute speech; a vision that when boiled down doesn’t look to rock the boat too much.

One of Medvedev’s themes revolved around the “s” word, svoboda, or freedom. “Freedom is better than non-freedom,” Medvedev declared, rather tritely. He then when on to emphasize that his view of freedom includes “personal freedom, economic freedom, and finally, freedom of expression.” How banal. Before anyone could get too excited with Medvedev’s liberal pretentions, he capped off his “freedom” rap with a Putinian maxim. “Freedom cannot be separated from the actual recognition of the power of law and to not chaos and respect the accepted order of the country.” Sounds like 2000 all over again.

At the moment, I take Medvedev’s “liberalism” as nothing more than campaign posturing. Sure, some might ask why he needs to placate the Russian business elite with a more liberal stance. Especially since his election is all but a forgone conclusion. The answer is that he’s not appealing to the Russian business elite’s liberal tendencies. They don’t really have any to appeal to. The last thing Russia’s chinovniki, er, businessmen want is anything akin to a populist notion of freedom. Medvedev’s statements are merely assurance that when in office he will continue along the present course. This is crystal clear when you put his “liberalism” alongside his statements about the law and the “accepted” order. In addition, Medvedev made it a point to refer to Putin six times. A move that I assume is to let the elite know that business will be as usual. Russia’s journey to 21st century modernization will be directed by the state and not against the fundamental interests of the Russian elite.

Here is where Medvedev’s plan of four “I”s come in: institutions, infrastructure, innovation, investment.

Within these four “I” Medvedev spelled out seven tasks: “overcoming legal nihilism, a radical reduction in administrative barriers, a reduction in taxes, the formation of a powerful and independent financial system, the modernization of infrastructure, the formation of the basis for a national system of innovation, and social development.” Notice there is no role for society in this effort. Like Russia’s many attempts at reform over the last three centuries, it is the state that will be its alpha and omega. Society’s seat at the table will be provisional, and at most advisory.

The truth of the matter is that Putin could have given this speech himself. And perhaps that is what is most comforting to the Russian business elite.

The same goes for voters. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is Putin or Medvedev at the helm as long the former is there to watch over the store. According to a recent poll conducted by the Leveda-Center, 80 percent of Russians polled plan on voting for Medvedev. People’s expectations seem to be similar to what they were in 2000 and 2004 says Kommersant.

Some 51 percent expect him to secure the great-power status for Russia, and the rule of law and order in the country are the highlights for 45 percent. Some 41 percent would like Medvedev to ensure fair distribution of income, 34 percent expect social protection from him and 34 percent want him to step up the government’s share in economy.

Moreover, Medvedev’s supporters see him as “a continuation and a copy of Putin;” a fact that certainly is the origin of his widespread support. While no one is sure who power will be distributed between the two, polled Russians seem fine with the idea of a power dyad.

Some 41 percent of respondents think both leaders will be equal after March 2 election, 23 percent predict Putin to keep the authority, but 20 percent expect Medvedev to emerge as the leader. At the same time, 47 percent of the polled want Putin to remain Russia’s president, viewing election as something inevitable.

Something inevitable indeed. Two weeks from now the inevitable will arrive, and after a few days of hooting and hollering, things in Russia will go back to normal. That is assuming the Kremlin clans will acclimate themselves to the new (old) order.