Empty Words

MOSCOW — The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — Russia’s Davos — opened with a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev. It was a frank speech, a tough speech. “It is incorrect to focus on calm, slow growth. It is a mistake,” he said. “This infamous stability can hide another period of stagnation…. This is why we must quickly and deliberately change everything that hampers breakthrough development.” After listing some of Russia’s achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he laid out his vision: privatizing government assets, overhauling the legal system, lifting visa restrictions, lowering taxes, and fighting corruption. Or, as Medvedev so kindly put it, “The squeeze of the noose on the neck of corruptioneers must be constant and merciless.”

The praise from Western writers was instant. It was “a blueprint for changing Russia,” Medvedev’s were “bold comments,” he had “Set a Goal to Reform, Modernize and Decentralize Russia as Quickly as Possible,” he had left investors “inspired” and “enthusiastic.”

I bet he had. Such tough-love speeches are common and often heard at economic conferences from other high-ranking Kremlin liberals. They work because they’re delivered by very smart, very persuasive people, people like First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov or privatization legend Anatoly Chubais, people who sound like they get it. And they do.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s hard to differentiate between all those speeches, and not just among those delivered by various ministers. How does Medvedev’s St. Petersburg speech, for example, differ from the speech he delivered to the Russian political elite in November 2009? And how does that, in turn, differ from its precursor, the “Forward, Russia!” editorial he penned in the oppositional newspaper Gazeta.ru? In all three, Medvedev talked about the stifling corruption in Russia, about its dangerous dependence on extraction, about the need to get some air into the Kremlin-controlled political system.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not the only one who can’t tell these speeches apart. Boris Makarenko is a well-known and intelligent political scientist at a think tank called the Institute of Contemporary Development that serves as Medvedev’s brain trust. I asked him if there were any differences between this speech and past speeches Medvedev had made. Makarenko argued that Medvedev offered something “more concrete” this time around, that he spoke of lowering the vote threshold — now set at 7 percent — for entering the Parliament. (In other words, to get even a single seat, a party needs to get at least 7.01% of the vote. If it doesn’t, the votes are split among all the other parties proportionally. This keeps smaller, often opposition parties out of Parliament.)

But Medvedev didn’t mention that in his St. Petersburg speech. He didn’t mention electoral politics at all. He did, however, mention it in Sunday’s interview with the Financial Times:

For instance, once we raised the State Duma admittance threshold for political parties up to 7 percent I think this might be the right thing to do to achieve the organization of the political forces…. However, one day we will have to revise the decision and lower the barrier so that political competition improves and those unable to clear the 7 percent barrier can scrape together at least 5 percent or even 3 percent to get to the State Duma.

In fact, Medvedev first broached the issue in his November 2009 state of the union. “Didn’t he mention this in November 2009?” I asked Makarenko.

“No, no he didn’t,” Makarenko said. Then he thought a minute and said, “Oh, yes, you’re right. He did.”

The real issue, of course, is why Medvedev continues to talk about the same things using the same words. No doubt, Medvedev and his crew know exactly what’s going wrong in Russia and have some ideas about how to fix it. But even if they actually wanted to fix it — and, given the interests at stake, that’s a big if — the real question is whether the people below them, the implementers, want to. And unfortunately, we have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question: They don’t.

Take, for example, Medvedev’s recent public outburst at the Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev. It was an “outrage,” Medvedev said, that of all the plans the ministry had developed along with the presidential administration, not a single one had gotten through parliament and become law. “If you and I agree on a time frame,” the president went on angrily, “and it doesn’t work, tell the administration. We have our own levers, or if push comes to shove, I can get involved. And if it’s stuck, then you should’ve called me and told me.” Because things like this — meetings with ministers, phone calls — are usually staged, Medvedev was clearly trying to show that he was cracking down on foot-draggers in his ranks. Instead, he revealed the opposite: His words don’t easily translate to deed.

And this is not, by the way, just a problem for Medvedev, a man many mock as effete and ineffectual. This winter, WikiLeaks revealed that strongman Vladimir Putin dealt with similar issues during his presidency: “In 2006 — at the height of Putin’s control in a booming economy — it was rumored within the Presidential Administration that as many as 60 percent of his orders were not being followed,” one of the U.S. Embassy cables said.

Here’s what’s happening instead: The Ministry of Internal Affairs is indeed being overhauled and reformed, just as Medvedev called for in one of his speeches. But the law reforming the ministry was written by the ministry itself, and many legal observers say the law simply makes legal many of the ministry’s current abuses.

Following Medvedev’s speech, there will almost certainly be an overhaul of the judicial system, too. Less than a decade ago, Putin did the same. His calls for “a dictatorship of the law” were transformed into what is now known as “telephone law.” That is, a judge will often receive a phone call instructing him how to rule, a phenomenon recently highlighted by the assistant to the judge in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who accused her boss of kowtowing to commands from above.

It’s not hard to imagine that the anti-corruption reform Medvedev proposed in St. Petersburg will also become a funhouse version of its guiding principle. For one example, the president called for firing civil servants on the mere suspicion of corruption, even if there is not enough evidence to try them in court.

The other problem, of course, is that often the president’s own actions undermine his very inspiring words. While mulling his own judicial reform, Medvedev has proposed to reinstate Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika for another term. Chaika’s son has been implicated in a scandal surrounding underground casinos in the Moscow region that were given protection by … the prosecutor’s office. Medvedev’s war against corruption is proceeding apace, yet none of the allegations raised — in court — by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has merited even an inquiry. The Ministry of Internal Affairs officers who caused the death of Sergei Magnitsky in police custody after he uncovered their theft of $230 million from the Russian treasury were decorated with medals for their work.

And that political reform Medvedev insists is so badly needed, the sense of competition and fair play that would do such wonders for the Russian economy? Well, we’ll let the president speak for himself. The Financial Times asked him whether perhaps running against Putin in the presidential election — or even having any kind of real contest — would finally introduce the competition he talks about so often in his speeches:

FT: Don’t you think that such open competition will be good for the development of democracy in Russia?

DM: Open competition is always good.

FT: But why not for the post of the president?

DM: Well, I’ve just told you, the goal of participating in the elections is not to facilitate the development of free competition, the goal is to win.

Empty Words [FP]

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