The Medvedev presidency: Unfinished business
The Medvedev presidency offered an opportunity to change the logic of the system without threatening the elites with retribution for venality and the subversion of constitutional authority in the Putin years. This would have achieved intra-systemic evolutionary change while transforming the fundamental operative code of the system. Instead, the opportunity was squandered, culminating in Putin’s demarche on 24 September 2011 when he announced that he would be seeking a third presidential term. Putin’s fundamental challenge now is to do what Medvedev aspired to achieve.
It is clear that the old forms of political management are exhausted, and thus Russia has now entered a renewed period of political reform. The fundamental challenge is to change the fundamental basis of governance. The Putin system practiced a plebiscitary form of legitimation in which elections are designed to demonstrate popular support for regime policies and leadership, and genuine pluralistic and competitive politics are thereby reduced. This is combined with a relatively strong residual commitment to constitutionalism and the procedural aspects of pluralist democracy.
However, in a system where democratic institutions are gutted of the inner logic that would make them viable in a working system of power and responsibility, the formal commitment to democratic renewal is in danger of doing little more than modernising the practices of regime governance rather than reasserting the autonomy of the constitutional state and the associated political practices.
The longer that Medvedev-style political reform continues, the less able will it be able to achieve an evolutionary transformation of the system. The reforms to the party system, for example, do not challenge the logic of political managerialism, but only change its forms. A plethora of small parties will only allow United Russia to survive as the dominant party. It will no longer enjoy a constitutional majority, but it will soon adapt to the new conditions of rampant pluralism.
Some of the reforms do have the potential to change the dynamics of politics. For example, the restoration of gubernatorial elections, even with the ‘municipal filter’, will allow a new generation of independent politicians to emerge in the regions. In due course the changed logic of federal relations will affect national politics as a whole.
Although trust in the regime, its leaders and institutions, has fallen dramatically over the last year or so, there is still a chance that a radical review of its political practices could restore belief in the developmental capacity of the system. Unfortunately, it is quite likely that this remaining window of opportunity will be missed.
Medvedev’s political reforms offered a chance for political modernisation from the middle – concessions from above accompanied by demands from below, meeting in the middle with the possibility of forging a genuine consensus over the shape of genuine political change. Instead, desultory concessions from above failed to meet the aspirations for effective change from below. Yet another stalemate situation has been created.
After 7 May Medvedev will move to the White House, and his concerns then will focus on economic and social issues. There is no reason why he should not be a perfectly adequate prime minister, in a role that would naturally fit with Putin’s dominant style. Medvedev will continue to act as a moderating force within the regime, but his modernising aspirations will come to nothing unless they are reinforced either by presidential or popular support.
The initiative for political reform will remain with the presidency, but there is little indication that Putin understands the depths of the crisis of political institutions in the country. Neither does he fully understand quite how tired people are of his personal demonstrative style. His leadership has to be fundamentally transformed, or else it will end in bitter failure. The gulf between self-serving political and social elites and even the system’s natural supporters in the rising middle class is growing ever wider. The present regime has an extraordinary ability to alienate even those who would be predisposed to support its policies. The security services and officialdom are reverting to Soviet-style behaviour that is deeply offensive to the new generation and to those who fought for freedom, even à la Russe, in the perestroika years and later.
Political reform usually comes about through a combination of intra-elite splits from above and popular pressure from below. The extent of splits at the top is likely to be rather limited, since Putin’s political genius lies in ensuring elite loyalty by offering enough goods (in terms of policies and opportunities for enrichment) to enough people to ensure regime integrity. This leaves mobilisation from below.
The Bolotnaya/Sakharov period of popular mobilisation has come to an end. This was marked by restraint, inclusiveness and good will, with a residual belief in the system’s capacity to change. Even many of those who marched on Poklonnaya shared Bolotnaya’s aspirations for change. Without new perspectives for political decompression from above and the middle, there will be increased anger, alienation and emigration from below.
Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.