Medvedev’s Moves

“I’m out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” Now I understand how Han Solo felt after being defrosted from carbonite. I go into the basement for two weeks and there are rumors of me being in a post-election hangover, or worse, murdered.  Well, I assure you dear readers that I’m alive and well.  Los Angeles may be ablaze (again) but I’m safe from the rings of fire, that is until I kick the bucket and meet the dark lord.

For the past few weeks I’ve been devoting my Bolshevik will and strength to finishing a dissertation chapter.  “Bolsheviks can storm any fortress” read the Stalinist slogan, and I did. I do have to finish this damn dissertation at some point. And well if I have to pick between you my dear reader and my career, well my petite-bourgeois sensibilities win out every time.  Just don’t hate the player, hate the game.  So over the next few months expect more periods where I go underground . . .

But the delusions of grandeur aren’t about me and my rumored doom. They have more to do with what’s been going on in Russia over the last few weeks.  Well, not in Russia exactly, but more how it’s being interpreted by the gatekeepers of English language reporting.  As we know, Obama was elected President of the United States, and Dima Medvedev instead of showing the proper deference to the new Emperor decided to address the Duma where he blamed the US for the global economic crisis (he’s right) and threatened to put missiles in Kaliningrad to match American intentions of putting missiles in Poland.  Was this the challenge to Obama’s “lack of experience” that everyone predicted?  The New York Times thought so.  It called Medvedev’s move “a cold-war-tinged challenge for President-elect Barack Obama.”  After all, the Times reasoned, “Russia’s leaders know full well that the American missile defenses pose no real threat to their huge nuclear arsenal. But playing the victim is an easy way to divert attention from Russia’s shrinking democracy, and now from declining oil prices.” A new President but the Times plays the same old record. So much for hope and change. Russia’s just the same old big bully, they say. Sigh.

But digging at the US wasn’t all, or even the real focus of Mr. Medevev’s speech. Sorry to disappoint my fellow Americans, but sometimes you aren’t at the center of everyone’s existence. To quote the NY Times again, “The dark flashbacks didn’t end there.”  Surprise! Medvedev isn’t the liberal everyone hoped, prayed, and sacrificed small animals and virgins for.  He’s a Putinist of perhaps a lighter shade, but still a Putinist.  Dima’s most recent affront to Western democratic sensibilities was his proposal that the Russian presidential term be extended from four to six years.  Immediately, pundits cried “authoritarianism” and revived the corpse of Putin’s impending return to Russia’s top job.  The logic goes that since Putin didn’t want to risk international condemnation for changing the Constitution when he was President (as if there wasn’t enough condemnation already), he sent is little bear to do the dirty work.

The changes were submitted to the Duma on Friday and they passed without a hitch. No surprises there or in the Guardian‘s Luke Harding usually predictable analysis: The changes entrench “the Kremlin’s grip on power and paving the way for an early comeback by Vladimir Putin.”  In fact, rumor has it that Putin will be back as early as 2009! For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this signals Putin’s “early comeback” especially since people like Harding believe that he never went anywhere in the first place.  After all, isn’t Putin the de facto President anyway? Is Medvedev Putin’s puppet or not?  Make up your damn mind.

In addition to extending the presidential term, Medvedev also proposed extending the terms of Duma reps from four to five years. This will certainly make representatives of United Russia happy.  Since the majority of Duma seats are based on lists and not direct candidate elections, this will solidify their place for one more year.  Rest easy, comrades.  But not too easy . . .

Medvedev also made some other interesting proposals in his speech that went virtually unnoticed in the Western press.  One is to change appointments for governors.  Instead of being appointed by the Kremlin, candidates for governor would chosen by their parties and be elected by a majority vote in their respective provincial Dumas.  Ekspert called this move “the most radical of all presidential initiatives.”  If this is implemented, governors would be more accountable to the regions they represent rather than to the Kremlin.  True, the Kremlin will certainly have a hand in the process via the back door–United Russia, after all, dominates every regional parliament–but it is a move toward some semblance of political decentralization.

The question, however, is why?  Why extend terms of President, Duma reps, and propose altering regional politics?  Many have pointed out that it’s all about the boys in the Kremlin tightening their grip.  Perhaps, but I have a different take.

Taken together, Medvedev’s proposals are a gift and a check to bureaucratic power.  Extending Duma terms gives reps a bit more time to rest on their laurels. Score one for the national political elite. Making governors accountable to locals is feather in the cap of local elites. Score one for them.  Extending the presidential terms to six years, however, is a potential check against this transfer of power.  The President will be in power longer than any one Duma member and given more time to put pressure on regional governors and their parliaments.

Extending the presidential term also suggests something else. In his speech, Medvedev spoke of “effective government.”  In one sense, his proposals are exactly about effective government.  They potentially, and I say potentially, increase the President’s effectiveness in influencing governance.  But this doesn’t mean that it’s about the Kremlin strengthening itself.  Quite the opposite, in my view.  Extending the top dog’s term says to me that the center still can’t trust its regions to implement its agenda. Therefore the President needs two more years to ram it down their throats.

Political power in Russia is indeed centralized because the history of regional politics from the Tsars to Putin have been one of autonomy, localization, stonewalling, foot dragging, or worse, exploiting the center’s directives.  Russian rulers’ solution has been to centralize its power.  But here is where the inner contradiction of centralization rears its ugly head.  The center must weaken the periphery to run the country as effective as it can, but in that weakening it makes itself the only real political force of reform, negating the power local need to prosecute the center’s policies.  The center is thus weakened by its very effort at becoming more effective.  The question then becomes how do you rule effectively and subordinate the machinations of regional boyars without giving them too much power to muck up your agenda?  It sounds as if Medvedev, with his proposed changes, is faced with the same conundrum.  Whether they will provide some semblance of an answer remains to be seen.

To think people believe that Putin wants this job back?!