Russia Squanders Its Chance at Democracy

Russia Squanders Its Chance at Democracy

Putin is lining up his players for the takeover. Medvedev's brief window of opportunity is slamming shut.


In late August, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev appointed Georgy Poltavchenko governor of St. Petersburg. Poltavchenko has served as presidential envoy to Russia’s central-administrative district since 2000. More importantly, he is a loyalist to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a KGB veteran. He replaces Valentina Matviyenko, another Putin confidante, who has moved on to chair the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament. Sergey Mironov, the former speaker of the Federation Council, is out. All this game of musical chairs has little to do with either President Medvedev or significant democratic developments. Rather, it demonstrates how Putin is rearranging his insiders.

Planned in secret as early as July, Poltavchenko’s appointment highlights the deep gap between democratic rhetoric and practice in today’s Russia. Analyzing the move, Nikolay Petrov, the Moscow Carnegie Endowment regional-politics expert, sounded baffled:


If United Russia were suffering from low ratings in St. Petersburg and the unpopular Matviyenko was dragging the party even further down, why replace her with a gray, low-profile presidential envoy who has about as much charisma as State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov? For all of her shortcomings—and there were many of them—Matviyenko at least was a colorful and charismatic politician.

The “why” is, unfortunately, quite clear: Putin-loyalist Poltavchenko has been installed in St. Petersburg to deliver the desired result in December’s elections for the Duma and the presidential elections next spring.

In rubber-stamping Putin’s political appointments, President Medvedev parts company with his democratic rhetoric. From his 2008 Krasnoyarsk speech (“Liberty is better than no Liberty”) to his Forward, Russia! essay to his pronouncements at the 2009 Yaroslavl conference, Medvedev has positioned himself as the propagandist of freedom and democracy in Russia.

His stated doubts regarding the current ban on gubernatorial elections and the admission that he “wouldn’t say today that governors in Russia won’t be elected for 100 years” (as he did in 2009) suggest that he would expand the menu of electoral options for Russian voters.

Yet, it is highly unlikely Medvedev will be holding the reins of power in the ten to fifteen years he believes are necessary to allow Russians to elect their governors. Moreover, Medvedev is fully on the same page with Putin as he continues to support the Duma elections by party lists and the ban on majority (single-mandate) districts. (Such districts would increase the feedback between voters and their elected representatives.) He also tolerated the prohibitively high 7 percent entry barrier to the Duma despite expressing support for a lower threshold—5 percent. It is much easier for the Kremlin to pull the strings of the political parties which run candidates on nationwide party lists, just as the failed czarist-era Dumas and the 1917 Russian Constituent Assembly did. And the trend doesn't stop at Russia's borders. At the recent Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Mr. Medvedev surprisingly lashed out against the OSCE election observers, whom he accused of “double standards” and bias. Instead, the Russian president recommended to expand the use of CIS election observers. Unfortunately, in the past those observers have often approved the most odious elections with widespread violations.

Medvedev, during his presidential term, missed a slew of opportunities to democratize Russia. He did not relinquish government control over the content of the main TV channels, for example, nor did he allow new, private TV channels to emerge. He failed to appoint new justices to the Supreme and Constitutional Court or to the all-important Moscow City Court, allowing these courts to continue as the tools of the executive branch, which was most obvious in the recent appeals by the former owners of the now-defunct oil company YUKOS, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. The two were convicted on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering, and their appeals were denied. Most Western legal experts view the charges as trumped up. In fact, while stating that those who prosecuted the late whistle-blower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (who died in jail) “committed crimes,” and suggesting that Khodorkovsky does not represent a threat to society (and ergo should be released), Medvedev accomplished very little to reinstate justice.

The Russian president talks a good game with regard to privatizing state-owned companies and fighting corruption, but precious little has been achieved in reality. Instead, the concentration of funds in the hands of the government directly contributes to strengthening the status quo. State-owned companies—from Gazprom and Rosneft to those controlling railroads, shipping, banking, etc.—are the pillars of the current state-capitalist regime. And rotten pillars they are. Alexei Navalny, another lawyer and whistle-blower, recently publicized embezzlements as high as $4.5 billion in construction of the East Siberian pipeline alone.

While President Medvedev talks the talk, he has wasted a unique opportunity to contribute to Russia’s democratization. This may be because he cannot change the status quo, or because he is committed to playing the role assigned to him when he was appointed as Vladimir Putin’s successor in 2008. In either case, Putin’s return in 2012 is likely to disabuse those in the Obama administration who harbored high hopes for a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations with Medvedev. Even in the unlikely event that Medvedev continues as president, his role in Russia’s democratization appears to be limited in extremis.