A Guarded Liberalism

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The timing of Dmitry Medvedev's first state-of-the-nation address left something to be desired since he could not compete with Barack Obama's victory, which was the main news around the world. From the perspective of domestic politics and the Russian public, however, it was probably logical that Medvedev decided to offer up his own topic for discussion on Wednesday -- just not the U.S. election.

The war with Georgia has changed much in Russia's relations with the West, and Medvedev began his speech with the brief conflict in August. This immediately imbued his address with an anti-American tone. Medvedev was intractable, declaring, "We will not leave the Caucasus."

Moments later, Medvedev criticized the "unilateral" conduct of the United States during the global financial crisis. He then proposed a series of measures to counter U.S. plans to place elements of a missile-defense shield in Europe, including the deployment of short-range Iskander missiles in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.

Medvedev's intractability discussing international affairs became a counterweight to his proposals to liberalize political life. Medvedev spoke about democratic values that would unite Russians. He returned to themes uttered before the Georgia war, such as rhetoric along the lines of "freedom is better than non-freedom." He offered traditional presidential guarantees to respect the Constitution, and he harshly warned law enforcement agencies not to abuse their powers.

Medvedev assaulted the bureaucracy on several fronts: Bureaucracy "does not believe in an individual's ability and right to act on his own;" it "scares the hell out of business;" it imposes tight control over the mass media and elections; and it exerts pressure on the courts.

Medvedev offered a startling program to liberalize the political system.

Marking his territory, Medvedev turned the power vertical upside down, saying, "First the citizen, then civic construction." From the mouth of a Russian leader, pronouncements about the individual's priority over the state sound revolutionary -- especially if they are followed by practical actions.

Acknowledging that Russian democratic institutions had been established "on orders from above," he called for their strengthening from below.

Medvedev spoke on behalf of "the major involvement of citizens in political life" and "for an enlargement in the representation of various political forces in elected bodies."

Medvedev supported the idea of a compulsory rotation in the leaders of political parties. He did not, however, mention rotations relating to the heads of regions, executive and municipal authorities. In regard to municipalities, he supported a contested United Russia rule that gives the right to nominate one's candidates both to parties and to social institutions.

A proposal to include the Public Chamber and nongovernmental organizations in the drafting of legislation also looks progressive. However, it's not clear how this might be institutionalized and to what extent it might undermine United Russia's monopoly in the Duma.

Medvedev's words that new information technologies such as the Internet would become "technological guarantees" of freedom of expression in Russia sounded forward-thinking. However, nothing was said about legal safeguards, evidently because they are deemed insufficient.

The main sensation, however, was created by his proposal to increase the presidential term to six years and that of Duma deputies to five years. The new terms wouldn't take effect immediately, but would concern Medvedev if he runs again in 2012. Will he? The answer to this question will depend on how successful he will be in forming a new style of political leadership. He seemed to take a step in this direction Wednesday. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who sat in the first row, applauded frequently.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.