Much of the coverage of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s State of The Nation Address has been fairly negative. ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’ crowed the cynics. ‘Nice ideas, but what about specifics?’ challenged the journalists. Other commentators have insinuated that the address from the vertically-challenged orator was nothing more than a rambling piece of PR used to placate the Kremlin’s critics. But should we give his plans for modernisation a chance?
Although not the most scintillating of reads, the address is worth a quick glance. The speech tackles many of Russia’s serious problems, reaching out to the old, sick, poor, jobless and homeless. Medvedev placed an emphasis on the menace of alcoholism and the need to improve the country’s efficiency, a commitment that seemed to hark back to the good old days.
In addition to these unremarkable government pledges and a overly intense fixation with broadband (has the Russian president discovered a love of downloading?), Medvedev has promised to implement far-reaching reform by embracing free markets, stamping out corruption, denouncing Russia’s notorious state corporations, nurturing the growth of civil society, reforming the political system, strengthening democratic institutions and challenging the judicial system.
Phew. It appears that Medvedev has lot of work to do. The length of this list alongside vague phraseology and lack of time frames makes it easy to see why there has been a media backlash. The speech also focuses more on the ‘what’ and much less on the ‘how’, revealing gaps and weakness in his grand plan.
I feel sceptical for another reason; his words seem to say exactly what detractors want to hear, both within and beyond Russia’s borders. Medvedev even puts the words of his critics into his own mouth:
‘We must not simply be full of hot air, as they say.’
This kind of pandering suggests that Medvedev’s modernisation plans may only be superficial improvements in order to silence his critics whilst preserving the status quo. Jailbird Khodorkovskii has unsurprisingly voiced an opinion that highlights this problem. In response to the address he stated that it was simply a way to justify modernisation without bothering to dismantle Russia’s authoritarian system.
However, I do not believe that there is no room for optimism. The address was not totally devoid of specifics, but more importantly, the man holding the top seat in the Kremlin has stood up in front of the world and made a series of important, and in certain cases, embarrassing admissions. Criticising the USSR and talking of 'chronic backwardness' has not exactly been the norm in recent years. Such a public and honest acknowledgement of Russia’s afflictions and shortcomings should be welcomed, not simply pooh-poohed as another piece of Kremlin spin. The fact that the president has thrown these questions out into the open in such a disparaging way, whilst risking the wrath of his prime minister, is commendable.
In sum, this year’s State of The Nation Address is a step in the direction of reality, if not a genuine movement towards a comprehensive plan to adopt the reform so badly needed. The economic downturn has exposed Russia’s weaknesses – mainly its over-reliance on energy resources – and brought a much needed wake-up call, which has been articulated in this speech. Still, whether Medvedev plans to implement his promises once he has polished off his humble pie remains to be known.