Vladimir Kara Murza
The format of a head of state’s annual address to legislators is a good indicator of a country’s political mentality. The US president makes the journey to Capitol Hill to read his State of the Union address in the “people’s chamber” — the House of Representatives; the Queen of England rides from Buckingham Palace to Westminster for her speech at the opening of Parliament. In Russia, it is legislators who are summoned to the Kremlin — the presidential residence — to hear from the nation’s leader. This was the case even in the 1990s, when the president and Parliament were elected by voters (and mattered). It remains true today, when both are a decorative stage set for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government.
On Tuesday, in homage to the constitutional requirement for the president to “address the Federal Assembly with annual messages on the situation in the country, on the guidelines of the internal and foreign policy of the State” (Article 84), Dmitri Medvedev delivered a 72-minute speech at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall. Optimists had voiced courageous predictions: that the president will form his own party to counterweigh Mr. Putin’s United Russia; that he will announce his run for a second term in 2012 over the wishes of his mentor; that he will initiate bold reforms of the political system. None of these have materialized. The bulk of Mr. Medvedev’s address was dedicated to the need to protect Russia’s children — an important but politically neutral subject. Few on the left or right would argue with the president’s assertion that children should “grow up healthy and happy.”
What the speech lacked was domestic political content — and this just a year away from parliamentary elections. Indeed, the president’s only “reformist” announcement was his intention to do away with the first-past-the-post system in municipal elections in favor of mixed or proportional balloting. Vigorous debates have raged in democracies around the globe about the advantages of proportional vs. district-based majority electoral systems, with valid arguments on both sides. None of these are relevant for today’s Russia. The Kremlin’s decision in 2004 to abolish individual districts in parliamentary elections splendidly achieved its goal of eliminating political opponents from the legislature, as only officially-sanctioned nationwide party lists could now run for the State Duma. This “reform” was later extended to regional parliaments. Municipal councils, though deprived of any influence, are the last vestige of electoral competition; even members of the unregistered Solidarity and People’s Democratic Union opposition movements have run for and won seats in local elections. The imposition of party-list monopoly at the municipal level is the last logical step in Mr. Putin’s post-2000 counter-reforms, and not, as Mr. Medvedev is claiming, “a strengthening of democratic governance.”
Those who still portray Dmitri Medvedev as a “closet democrat” suggest that his real message to the nation was not Tuesday’s speech, but last week’s blog entry, in which he criticized the “stagnation” in Russian politics and called for “increasing the level of political competition.” The real answer, though, will come on December 15, when Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court announces its verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most famous political prisoner, whose case became a symbol of lawlessness and repression under Vladimir Putin. Government prosecutors want to keep Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail until 2017. That decision will be a better “guideline of internal policy” than all speeches and blog posts put together.
Mr. Medvedev’s Message