Dmitri Medvedev’s reforms: promises and obstacles

Russia has elected a new president. True, the public still perceives him as a mechanical extension of his predecessor, rather than as a new president. But he really is new – since his election opens up a new phase in Russia’s transformations.

Russia has elected a new president.

True, the public still perceives him as a mechanical extension of his predecessor, rather than as a new president. But he really is new – since his election opens up a new phase in Russia’s transformations.

If somebody else had been elected instead of Medvedev, or even if Putin himself had stayed on for a third term, the president would still have to address this issue. There’s no other way. Russia needs to complete what was started in the 1990s: the transition from communism to a social state with a market economy.

Medvedev said in a campaign speech that judging by opinion polls, the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens still don’t understand the point of the 1990s reforms – meaning that the reforms haven’t improved their lives.

It’s hardly surprising that citizens didn’t understand the great purpose behind all these abuses.

More likely, they understood perfectly well that the point of the reforms lay in robbing them.

The initial purpose was to make a transition from centralized management of the economy to market-based regulation mechanisms.

In restoring order, Putin tightened the screws. Russia’s movement from socialism to the free market, begun in the Yeltsin era, ground to a halt half-way. The economy became market-based, but the social sphere remained socialist. The right-wingers of the 1990s did the dirty work: robbing the people and handing out socialist property. Now somebody has to follow in their footsteps, cleaning up the mess they left behind – developing a system that can be used as a foundation for a social state with a market economy.

The authorities didn’t do this in the Putin era. The only social reform they ventured to implement was the monetization of social benefits (as of January 2005). No other systemic changes were implemented. In order to keep the people from moaning too much, they got the occasional 100-ruble increase in pension payments; and money was pumped into the social sphere via the national projects – a rather random distribution to lucky recipients.

It’s too soon to evaluate the Putin era in terms of the overriding task: Russia’s transformation into a social state with a market economy.

But the fact remains that right now – as power passes from Putin to Medvedev – a whole range of areas fail to meet requirements: health care, education, social security, housing and communal services, academic institutions, the Armed Forces, the law enforcement agencies, and the judicial system. To be honest, these ruins don’t meet any requirements at all.

Our new president, Dmitri Medvedev, is blessed with extremely favorable conditions for continuing reforms and transforming the “socialist ruins” into market-based institutions. Oil prices are sky-high; the budget is at record levels; the Duma is tame; and Putin will be a prime minister with incontrovertible authority.

Medvedev’s speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on February 15 was presented to the public as a plan of action for the incoming president. Yet it didn’t say anything in particular about reforms. The very mention of “reforms” gives ordinary citizens the shivers. Such terms can’t be spoken aloud in campaign speeches. All the same, the speech does contain some points indicating that Medvedev is serious about restructuring our society: attempting to alleviate the negative consequences of the 1990s and resuming movement in the direction of liberalization.

It’s interesting to note that the measures proposed in the Krasnoyarsk speech largely coincide with the Yabloko party’s policy program for the parliamentary elections last December.

“Ensuring true independence for the judicial system will be a key priority for us,” Medvedev promised. “We should eliminate the practice of court rulings being guided by telephone calls from senior officials, or made in return for bribes.” Yabloko’s policy program speaks of “a range of measures to ensure independent courts, correct judicial errors, and revise unjust verdicts.”

If different people in government and in opposition can see our country’s problem areas and propose similar solutions, this means that the problems have developed to the point where they are indisputable and obvious.

As in the late 1980s, market reforms are back on the agenda. But now there’s no choice between two strategies proposed by pro-democracy parties. There aren’t even any parties these days. There are only Putin and Medvedev. And this time, they’ll do everything on their own.

In the last few weeks before election day, the media were arguing over whether Medvedev can be trusted. Is he really as liberal as he seems – or is all his talk of freedom of the press and the rule of law just bait for those who don’t accept the successor trick, aimed at getting them to vote for him anyway?

Is Medvedev a liberal or not? The question isn’t all that important. What’s more important is whether he has a sense of responsibility to the people milling around far beneath him, at the foot of the mountain of power. Is he capable of implementing reforms in such a way that they achieve their objectives without causing the people further suffering?

We’d like to believe that he is. Unfortunately, however, the present-day regime has some problems that make it hard to be optimistic about its plans.

The first problem is the lack of competent, responsible officials capable of properly calculating, preparing, and implementing any kind of reforms.

The second problem is even more serious. It’s the principle which the Russian authorities hold sacred: “For our friends, everything; for everyone else, the law.”

To be fair, we should note that the same problems applied in the Yeltsin era. And precisely because of these problems, the intial purpose of the reforms was perverted to such an extent that ordinary citizens never understood why they were implemented. Just to torment the people, was it?

Back then, however, there was another terrible problem. The 1990s reformers were fundamentally incapable of having compassion for the people. They were unable to take pity on them.

As yet, we don’t know about President Medvedev’s capabilities in that area. We’d like to believe him capable of feeling compassion for all the people milling around far beneath him. And if he’s incapable of that, we should expect another rough ride. As for the purpose of reforms, it will remain incomprehensible again – permanently, this time.