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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medvedev Promises to Bring Democracy to Regions

MTPresident Dmitry Medvedev delivering his second state-of-the-nation address to hundreds of dignitaries in the Kremlin’s St. George Hall on Thursday.

President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday held out the remote republic of Tuva to illustrate Russia’s need for political reform and promised to make electoral changes that would promote democracy.

But opposition activists and independent analysts said his reforms were too feeble to amount to political change.

Medvedev, speaking during his second annual state-of-the-nation address, warned the opposition not to use democracy as a cover to “destabilize the state and split society.”

Medvedev’s Plans vs. Reality

In his first state-of-the-nation address last year, Medvedev outlined political reforms needed to promote democracy and freedom. Following is a brief account of the priorities set by Medvedev in his first address and what has been achieved since.

Promoting Smaller Parties

Proposal: Medvedev proposed that small parties that failed to meet a 7 percent threshold of votes be granted several seats in legislatures anyway. He advocated reducing the size of deposits and cutting the number of signatures needed for registration of a new party. Winners in regional elections, rather than the Kremlin, should propose candidates for the governors of provinces.

Achievements: The State Duma has adopted laws introducing the changes demanded by Medvedev, but opposition parties have made no inroads at all in elections. Most opposition parties, weakened by years of harassment, win less than 2 percent in polls and are unlikely to benefit from a decision to grant one or two seats in legislatures for those who score 3 to 7 percent.

Deposits were scrapped, but the opposition says this closed a window of opportunity for them to avoid presenting up to 200,000 signatures of support needed to get registered. Allegations of mistakes in lists of signatures were used in a series of regional polls last month to exclude opposition candidates. Opposition parties have decried the latest regional polls, in which United Russia consolidated further its domination, as a “stab in the back of democracy.”

Extending Presidential and Parliamentary Terms

Proposal: Medvedev proposed extending the four-year presidential and parliamentary terms to six and five years, accordingly, to give more stability to the whole political system.

To add weight to regional legislatures, Medvedev proposed that only their deputies be allowed to get seats in the Federation Council.

Local legislatures should have the right to fire top executive officials in the regions.

Achievements: The Duma rushed through the constitutional changes to extend the presidential term in record time. Many believe that the beneficiary will be Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, who has not ruled out running in the 2012 presidential election.

Local legislatures won the right to send their nominees to the Federation Council and fire top regional executives. Since Putin’s United Russia party dominates all of these, the move made no practical difference.

Corruption

Proposal: Medvedev outlined a “comprehensive, systematic and targeted approach” to combat corruption with a raft of new laws regulating the activities of state bodies.

Achievements: New laws have been passed but diplomats, foreign investors and Russian officials say corruption is still flourishing. Transparency International rated Russia in 147th place out of 180 on its Corruption Perceptions Index last year, below Bangladesh and Yemen.

Developing Civil Society And the Media

Proposal: Medvedev said nongovernmental organizations should get a say in drafting bills concerning human rights, health and property issues. He said parliamentary parties should have guaranteed access to state media. Freedom of speech should be backed by technological innovation, such as extending Internet access.

Achievements: Medvedev has adopted a friendlier attitude toward nongovernmental organizations and the Duma has passed a law simplifying registration rules for NGOs. However, NGOs complain of continued official harassment. The Moscow Helsinki Group said this month that Moscow officials were trying to expel it from its headquarters in central Moscow.

The Duma has adopted a law ensuring equal access for political parties to the media, but officials appeared to have found a way around it.

Opposition parties said that during local elections in Moscow last month their candidates were given time slots at a small television network with few viewers, while United Russia candidates featured lavishly on popular channels.

— Reuters

Medvedev kicked off a 10-point list of reforms with a comical bow to the sparsely populated Tuva republic in southern Siberia.

Medvedev explained that Tuva’s legislature, known as the Peoples’ Khural, has 162 deputies — more than four times more than the Moscow City Duma, which has 35 members.

Tuva’s “economic potential is — sadly — much humbler than Moscow’s and its population is just one thirtieth of the size,” Medvedev said.

“We need to smooth out such distortions,” he said.

The president’s list also included a promise to make it easier for political parties to participate in elections by canceling requirements to collect signatures. As a first step, Medvedev suggested that the rule should be dropped in regional elections for parties that have deputies in regional legislatures but not in the State Duma.

The Central Election Commission has regularly been accused of unfairly using the requirement to bar opposition candidates by claiming that more than 5 percent of the signatures were invalid.

Medvedev said the rule was outdated because parties already needed to prove that they had significant membership numbers and organizational coverage in a majority of the country. “More proof of mass support and organization is unnecessary,” he said.

He also called for an end to illegal manipulations with early voting and absentee ballots. “It is finally time to put this in order,” he said.

However, Medvedev failed to mention the disputed Oct. 11 regional elections and the outcry that followed, where the State Duma’s three opposition parties — the Communists, the Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia — staged an unprecedented walkout to protest massive fraud.

He said, though, that the threshold for winning seats in regional legislatures should be no more than 5 percent of the vote and regions should guarantee equal media coverage for parties represented in local legislatures. Medvedev made a similar call regarding federal elections in last year’s speech.

Medvedev stressed that he was acting on behalf of democracy and freedom. “As the guarantor of the Constitution, I will continue to do everything possible to strengthen democracy in our country,” he said.

But he also said strengthening democracy does not mean the weakening of law and order. “Any attempts to rock the situation with democratic slogans, to destabilize the state and split society will be stopped,” he said.

He singled out the North Caucasus as the country’s biggest domestic problem. “The level of corruption, violence and clannishness is unprecedented,” he said, adding that state funds were being almost openly stolen in the region.

Medvedev said 26 billion rubles ($900 million) had been spent in Chechnya, and Ingushetia would get 32 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) over the next six years, but appalling poverty was a main reason for the violence. “Clearly the economic backwardness and the lack of opportunities for a majority of the population is the source of many problems,” he said.

Ingushetia and Chechnya have experienced a wave of violence this year unseen since the two separatist wars that ravaged Chechnya in the 1990s.

Medvedev vowed to “destroy the bandits” and announced that a federal minister would assume responsibility for “effectively coordinating” policies for the region.

The announcement was met with some reservation by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

“If they find a man who does not care about his personal interests but about the advancement of the North Caucasus, then this will be useful to the region,” Kadyrov said in a statement posted on his government’s web site.

Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said the candidate “must be responsible for everything good and everything bad. I believe he will have to be neutral and have full authority,” he said, Interfax reported.

In contrast to Medvedev’s first address last year, where he announced the extension of presidential terms to six years and threatened to station missiles in the western exclave of Kaliningrad, Thursday’s speech was markedly moderate.

The only discernible hawkish remarks were promises that the armed forces would be supplied with more than 30 intercontinental nuclear missiles and three nuclear submarines next year, plus some extensive praise for the country’s war veterans.

Medvedev’s main foreign policy message was that the country’s future path must be “exclusively pragmatic” and continue the traditional principle of multipolarity.

Medvedev also repeated his call for a new treaty on European security, a stance that he has persistently followed since taking office last year but that has not met any significant support in the West.

He said if his vision had been implemented, armed conflicts like last year’s war in Georgia could be avoided. “If we had had an efficient institute that could stop aggressors, Georgia would not have had the impudence to unleash a war against the people of South Ossetia,” he said.

While the leaders of the State Duma’s main opposition parties reacted positively to Medvedev’s address, the country’s tiny pro-Western opposition and independent analysts showed scorn.

“For the first time in many years, this was a sober analysis of the country’s situation and not just a list of promises,” senior Communist official Ivan Melnikov said, Interfax reported.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, called the speech magnificent. “It addressed 99 percent of all current problems, gave assessments and recommendations. We will carry it out,” he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Leonid Gozman, a co-leader of the opposition Right Cause party, said while Medvedev’s proposals went in the right direction, they were too few and too vague to achieve the serious political reforms needed to fulfill his promises.

“Why did he say nothing on free speech and on the falsifications in the [Oct. 11] elections”? Why was he silent about corrupt courts and judicial independence?” Gozman told The Moscow Times.

Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, was even more blunt, saying the whole address was about the survival of the governing political elite.

“There was no revolution, and there will be none because there is no intention for revolution,” she said.

The promised political changes were minor and not capable of bringing any meaningful change. Shevtsova suggested a different tack. “A first step would be to open state television for dissenters and opposition politicians. He could do this immediately,” she said.