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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Imperfect State of the Nation

The reaction to President Dmitry Medvedev’s second state-of-the-nation address was largely ambivalent, a reflection of the relative lack of structure and specifics of the address itself.

The president acknowledged that “In the 21st century, our country once again needs to undergo comprehensive modernization. This will be our first ever experience of modernization based on democratic values and institutions.” I interpret this to mean that all of the talk associated with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the oil-boom years about how Russia is “getting up off its knees” has become a thing of the past. Medvedev admitted that Russia lags behind the majority of developed countries. This admission, he believes, is in itself a necessary prerequisite for building a “pro-modernization consensus.”

In addition, Medvedev clearly spoke in favor of limiting the role of an all-powerful state in the economy and stressed that the government’s necessity to increase its share in leading businesses was justified only by the crisis: “Regarding state corporations, I think that this legal form of enterprise has no future in the modern world.”

By contrast, Medvedev was clearly complacent when discussing the fight against corruption, noting only that corruption charges had been filed against 1,200 officials in the first half of this year. (In China, that figure is 19 times higher for the same period, and only one in five of the Russian cases resulted in a conviction.) Overall, the president spoke about corruption in impersonal and abstract terms.

The theme of modernization dominated other topics in the message to such a degree that the president should probably have limited his address to that single topic. Medvedev’s proposed measures for improving the political system came off looking rather pallid considering the widespread falsification of the Oct. 11 election results — and his weak response to the resulting complaints. There was nothing especially revolutionary or earthshaking about his suggestions for helping “socially oriented” nonprofit organizations, and those remarks would have been more logical to present in a working meeting with justice and finance ministers than in an address intended for a national audience. His detailed description of problems with the educational system, not to mention the suggestion to reduce Russia’s 11 time zones, came off sounding a bit artificial.

It was difficult not to notice those parts of the message containing unrealistic goals. He instructed the government to draw up new procedures for making the permit and approval process on investment projects more efficient and speedy within two months, but only an incurable idealist would believe that the heavy bureaucratization in regulating investment projects could be eased in such a short time period.

Similarly, Medvedev’s detailed description of the weapons slated to be delivered to the Russian army by 2010 seemed out of touch with reality, considering that it represents roughly triple the average quantity of arms currently produced annually.

At the same time, it is worth noting that the president mostly set short-term goals. He made 15 references to the year 2010 in his message, while mentioning 2020 — Putin’s favorite strategic year — only once. It would be nice to believe that this was no coincidence and that the president was really focused on more realistic and shorter-term goals.

If this is the case, he truly has his work cut out for him. The problem is that most of the people listening to the speech in the Kremlin’s St. George Hall on Thursday — especially those who sat in the first row — are the very ones who have gained the most from the raw materials-based economy and imperfect democracy that Medvedev criticized so harshly. How will Medvedev possibly be able to overcome the powerful clan in the government and Kremlin that is most interested in continuing the anti-modernization status quo? Will he have the resolve to carry out fundamental staffing changes, a topic not even covered in this address? Whatever happened to his “Golden 1,000” list of most promising government cadre that attracted so much attention a year ago? This is an important issue because whether Medvedev’s modernization projects succeed or fail will largely depend on the people who are charged with carrying them out.

At the end of the day, however, Medvedev’s ambitious plans for modernizing and reforming Russia will remain empty talk. Although his words are inspiring, they are not realistic.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is a professor of economics, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies and editor-in-chief of Svobodnaya Mysl.