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Monday, May 23, 2011

Dima, Volodya and Alice

by Paul E. Richardson

What exactly is a Russian liberal? Has this species ever been seen in the wild (by which I mean the Kremlin)? In her spot-on analysis of Russia's ruling tandem in today's Washington Post, Liliya Shevtsova highlights this question brilliantly:

...the transformation of Medvedev into a symbol of reformist hopes has been Putin's best trick so far. Perhaps Medvedev's convictions are indeed more liberal than those of Putin, the senior colleague who brought him to power. And it is natural for their respective teams to each tug the rope its own way. The smoke screen of rivalry at the top lends authenticity to the campaign to keep Putin's tandem in power.

Shevtsova then asks the important question: just why is Medvedev seen to be more "liberal" than Putin? It turns out to be mainly a question of words, rather than deeds. Because when one looks at deeds, the record is clear:

As president, Medvedev has called for freedom and the rule of law. But he has also expanded the powers of law enforcement agencies; pushed through an extension of the president's term, to six years; passively watched the indictment and trial on trumped-up charges of Yukos oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky; permitted the violent dispersal of rallies in defense of the constitution and beatings of the opposition; and overseen the introduction of legislation expanding the state's ability to repress. Medvedev tirelessly speaks out against corruption, but during his presidency, corruption has become a way of life here and graft has reached an estimated $300 billion annually. He talks about improving the investment climate, but independent observers say that it was people close to Medvedev who launched the raid against Domodedovo, Russia's most profitable airport - an effort that has been likened to the state's takeover of Yukos. Yes, Medvedev has forced government officials and people close to Putin from the boards of state companies, but will state control of those businesses be weakened if their replacements are selected by the same Putin team?

It reminds me of the speculation in 1982, after the ailing Andropov (then KGB chief) rose to the top Politburo spot. Various analysts sought to portray him as a liberal because of his love for jazz, scotch and American detective novels. Or consider the lionized liberal Gorbachev, whose glasnost and perestroika brought about real civil reform within the Soviet Union. This same Gorbachev sent tanks into Tbilisi and the Baltics to crush demonstrations for national liberation from the Soviet imperial yoke. And the paragon of democracy, Boris Yeltsin, who is oft-touted as liberal for allowing a truly free press, send thousands of young Russians to fight and die in the horrific Chechen wars. The designation of a Russian leader as "liberal" seems to tell us more about the analyst making the designation than it does about the leader in question. If we take the definition of a "liberal" to mean someone who supports (through actions, not words):

  • a system that allows truly competitive, unfettered political parties;
  • transparent functioning of all three branches of government, which should check and balance one another;
  • the states protection of basic human rights and the eschewal of the use of violence on its citizens;
  • a foreign policy based on a reasonable reflection of the national interest, expressed indirectly through elections and real legislative oversight;
  • a free market economy not dominated by state-controlled enterprises.

Then Russia has never had a leader who is truly liberal. Speeches against corruption or use of an iPad does not a liberal make. And calling another a "conservative" because he is a bit more draconian or dictatorial than the norm is also misleading. Perhaps we simply need to stop trying to simplify Russia's internal politics by overlaying it with our own political labels, because they establish points of reference that just do not exist. Actually, the monikers Tweedledee and Tweedledum might be more useful as a starting point in explaining the current ruling tandem, mostly because they emanate from the fantastical world of Alice's Wonderland. But of course we don't live down a rabbit hole (though it does sometimes feel that way) and something rather more explanatory is required. Nominations anyone?