Medvedev Must Back Up His Words

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Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly said that he is committed to the development of democracy and civil society.

Of course, such rhetoric before his election had to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, he needed to secure the support of people who would have voted for a truly democratic candidate, if one had been allowed to run, as well as to calm those worried by President Vladimir Putin's increasingly hawkish rhetoric.

But the statements that Medvedev has made after the March 2 election deserve to be taken seriously. This week, the president-elect has declared twice in as many days that civil society plays a key role in decision-making in a democratic state. Unlike Putin, he spoke about civil society's role without any disclaimers or criticism.

Medvedev, speaking Tuesday at a meeting of a new think tank that will organize brainstorming sessions for him on a variety of issues, said he was "a supporter of open discussion" and "the authorities do not need compliments or flattery from the expert community, they need public and comprehensive discussion."

The next day, Medvedev told a session of the Public Chamber that "our task is to create a system that would allow civic structures to participate in working out state policy and appraising its quality."

We can only hope that Medvedev is not playing a good cop/bad cop routine with Putin and that he will follow through on his words with tangible actions that give civil society an important role in government decision-making.

Under Putin, discussion on key issues has dwindled, and the process of decision-making has narrowed to a very small group of insiders on most issues. The notable exception is on economic and social policies, where a few loyal think tanks have been able to get Putin's ear.

If Medvedev is serious, he should go beyond encouraging an open discussion on key issues. He needs to foster a revival of independent civil society by lifting excessive restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and ending official pressure on "unloyal" NGOs.

An independent expert community, civil society and an independent media are the cornerstones of an open discussion on key decisions. They also serve as public watchdogs, raising the alarm over poor governance and, more important, offering meaningful and insightful feedback on government plans that help the authorities to avoid errors and improve overall governance.

Without their involvement, any discussion would be open but meaningless.

If Medvedev really intends to widen the discussion on decision-making, he also needs to rebuild the government's feeble system of checks and balances by creating conditions in which the parliament and courts can become both independent and efficient.