Sat, Jan 01, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The opportunity is ripe for a new democratic agenda in Russia

By Mikhail Gorbachev

When Russian President Dmitri Medvedev delivered his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly, I was struck by the fact that his speech seemed to be meant for an advanced, prosperous country, not the real Russia of today.

Russia will hold a presidential election next year. What happens this year will, in my opinion, be even more important than the election itself.

Indeed, the evolution of Russian society could transform Russian politics, despite those domestic opponents who deny change or those who unqualifiedly classify Russia as “incorrigibly authoritarian.”

However, in order for that to happen, a new agenda for Russia must be developed this year.

A decade ago, defense of Russia’s territorial integrity and restoration of governability topped the list of priorities. People supported former president Vladimir Putin, who was devoted to this “stabilization” agenda. We may debate the means by which it was pursued, and how successfully, but Russia’s “existential” challenges were largely overcome.

However, progress on stabilization only highlighted Russia’s unresolved problems, which the global financial crisis exacerbated, but did not cause. After all, Russia’s resource-based, de-industrializing, expenditure-driven economy is the result of purely domestic choices. Nor was it the crisis that gave rise to corruption, which affects officialdom at all levels or that caused Russia to lose its democratic dynamic.

We Russians rode along on oil and gas, forgetting that these resources will not last forever. However, even with favorable world market conditions, we did not manage to solve the problem of poverty, in which millions of Russians still live.

I am convinced that Russia’s troubles all come down to politics. We need a democratic, competitive environment, initiative at all levels, an active civil society and real public control. Only under such conditions will difficult problems lend themselves to solution.

However, starting in 2005-2006, the authorities implemented measures that made responsiveness to acute problems practically impossible. The decisions to appoint, rather than elect, regional governors, to introduce party-list voting, to raise the electoral threshold for parties to enter the Duma and to repeal the minimum-turnout requirement — all accompanied by rampant manipulation of elections and the mass media — created a political system closed to feedback from society. Not surprisingly, the political elite became self-absorbed and served only its own narrow interests.

This summer, with wildfires raging outside Moscow, the elite’s isolation took on a menacing nature. However, something else happened: Society became more demanding, recognizing its own interests and knowing how to express them.

Although the traditions of self-organization in Russian society are neither deep nor strong, real movement in this direction became visible for all to see. Activists from public movements, journalists, ecologists, businessmen and ordinary people who had suffered the tyranny and corruption of public officials began to join in.

The authorities have recognized this, at least to some degree. Medvedev’s decision to suspend construction of a highway through the Khimki forest near Moscow in the face of widespread civic protest was important. For many months, Moscow and federal authorities ignored the highway’s opponents, so Medvedev’s decision was a signal: Contempt for the people is inadmissible. Yet right after that, the bureaucracy tried to turn the public hearings — called to give people and civil institutions a voice in solving such problems — into an empty formality.

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