Dmitry Medvedev has proved timid, ineffectual and ultimately powerless during his tenure as Russia’s president. But give him this: The Deep Purple fan at least has recognized that the authoritarian regime built by his boss, Vladimir Putin, is unworkable. In his final “state of the state” speech, Medvedev proposed on Thursday to undo key parts of Putin’s concentration of power over the past decade by returning to the election of regional governors, making it easier for political parties and presidential candidates to register, and establishing an independent state broadcaster.
Some analysts quickly concluded that the presidential speech reflected a panicked Kremlin effort to defuse a protest movement that has brought tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other cities; it came just two days before a new demonstration. That could be true; but Medvedev has been delivering such addresses for several years. In 2009, he denounced Russia’s “primitive raw materials economy” and “chaotic” foreign and domestic policies “dictated by nostalgia and prejudice.” In 2010 he gave a speech noting the urgent need to modernize by attracting Western technology and foreign investment.
Medvedev, in short, appears to have recognized, at least to some degree, that Putin’s bullying of domestic and foreign business, the massive criminality of his government, and his KGB-style repression of peaceful opponents is unsustainable. Though he was not able to significantly change the regime, he has been proved right by the uprising by members of the country’s urban middle class, which seems to have been jolted out of a decade of passivity by Putin’s decision to return to the presidency next year.
The reforms suggested by the president would be a start toward a more democratic system better able to compete in a global economy. But the odds that Putin will embrace them seem long.
Medvedev has been expected to return to the post of prime minister after the presidential election in March. If he does, he may have the chance to press for the kind of incremental political change he proposed — or at least to keep talking about it. How far he goes, and whether he has any more success than in the past four years, will likely depend on whether the popular protest movement continues and grows. The massive turnout of demonstrators on a freezing December night may indicate that Putin will not have the free hand to which he has become accustomed.
— The Washington Post