Vladimir Ryzhkov, writing in the Moscow Times:
President Dmitry Medvedev’s second state-of-the-nation address was tragicomic. The much-anticipated “plan for modernizing Russia” turned out to be a haphazard mix of utopianism and superficiality. His address lacked a sober, honest diagnosis of the serious maladies that are crippling the country. In fact, the president took the exact opposite approach, opting to preserve the political, economic and social status quo — directly contradicting his goal of modernization.
Medvedev’s address was full of comic moments. Speaking in glowing terms about Russia’s bright and innovative future, Medvedev resembled former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who promised in 1961 that “the Soviet people will live in true communism by 1980.” It also reminded me of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who spoke ad nauseam about the successes of “developed socialism,” or his promise to institute a normal program for bringing food products to the stores (read: “modernization” when translated into our current times). Medvedev made utopian promises of developing thermonuclear fusion, building a Russian Silicon Valley, laying fiber-optic lines to every city and remote village to provide countrywide Internet service and even launching space flights to other planets. To assist in fulfilling these ambitious goals, Medvedev is counting on the “Golden 1,000” young professionals who will somehow help him replace the brain drain of hundreds of thousands of the country’s most talented people.
All of those brilliant plans will go nowhere, of course, and Medvedev’s speech will be forgotten quicker than the results of the current playoffs between the Russia and Slovenia football teams. Russians have been hearing those same empty promises for the last 20 years, even while the country’s technological, scientific and social infrastructure has been deteriorating. This is not only because few people take the president seriously anymore. These plans will fail because Medvedev proposes building a new Russia in place of the old, but without changing the current foundation, walls or ceilings.
Medvedev once again named the symptoms of the illness — chronic backwardness, uncompetitiveness, overdependence on raw materials, corruption, constant and widespread poverty, and so on. But the president did not address the illness itself or ways to cure it. Medvedev conspicuously ignored the following problems:
1. Russia increasingly lags behind other modern states because it is essentially a closed economy, and this hinders the inflow of modern technologies and investment.
2. The ownership of the country’s resources and wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of only a few state and private players, leading to heavy monopolization in the economy, increasingly protectionist policies, state support for failing industries and a growing income gap that dooms a large percentage of the population into a lifetime of poverty.
3. The close ties between government and big business is unprecedented for a leading country, and this conflict of interest is the principle cause for the enormous and endemic corruption that continues to grow during Medvedev’s presidency.
4. The bloated and highly ineffective state bureaucracy that has doubled in size under then-President Vladimir Putin, is the main reason for the country’s lack of competitiveness in global markets. This has been confirmed by recent surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum.
A very powerful and influential clan has emerged out of the years in which the ruling elite gained control over Russia’s natural resources wealth to the detriment of the country’s social and economic development. The top members of this clan were the ones invited to listen to Medvedev’s address, gazing — and sometimes dozing — dreamily in the Kremlin’s opulent St. George Hall. They included the siloviki, who eat up ever more of the revenue pie by increasing the budgets for the country’s law enforcement agencies — the police, border guards, customs inspectors and immigration control. They also included the bureaucrats, whose business is carved from swelling budgets that include kickbacks for state purchases and the awarding of lucrative public contracts and affiliated businesses, as well as the constant bribes required to motivate officials to get permits or favorable inspections. Finally, they include state and private oligarchs who control the main wealth of the country and who skillfully maintain a monopolistic hold over the market, lobby for protectionist measures and even manage to receive the lion’s share of state aid allocated for anti-crisis programs. Those groups are all politically linked together by their memberships in United Russia, the party of power that is headed by none other than Prime Minister Putin.
Medvedev not only failed to name the main reasons for the country’s degradation, but he also didn’t dare to tamper with the interests of a single one of the three major interest groups. He proposed only superficial measures that do not threaten the basic character of the system. Medvedev did not call for a new course of openness for the country, for ending the economy’s monopolization and concentration of wealth, for limiting the power and authority vested in siloviki structures or for reducing the size of government and the country’s bureaucracy. Much less did he demand political reforms that would allow for the creation of the necessary counterbalance to the current special interest groups that are pulling the country downward.
The result is that the siloviki continue to build Putin’s “Fortress Russia” at the taxpayers’ expense. The bureaucrats keep getting fatter, creating diversionary “businesses” in the names of their kin to avoid censure. Moreover, the oligarchs skim the monopolistic cream off of the economy and put their capital into offshore accounts and foreign football teams.
Once you take all of the utopian dreams out, Medvedev’s “modernization” boils down to barely a handful of insignificant and banal ideas — sending yet another symbolic presidential envoy to the increasingly unstable Caucasus, eliminating daylight savings time and reducing the number of time zones in Russia. As it turns out, this is the extent of much-acclaimed “Go Russia!” concept.
Although neither Putin nor Medvedev has been able to build a road that goes directly from Vladivostok to Russia, Medvedev thought of a ingenious way to close this embarrassing gap. By reducing the number of time zones, abracadabra — Vladivostok will now be two hours closer to Moscow.