Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University and former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Before Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to visit California this week, he sent a warship ahead. After docking at San Francisco, the captain insisted that the battle cruiser’s visit was a sign of friendship.
If that were so, why didn’t Medvedev send a ballet company or a cultural exhibit to coincide with his visit, instead of a war vessel bristling with big guns and cruise-missile launchers? But then Russians can be a pugnacious people, and Medvedev wanted to make a point: Don’t take us for granted. We are still an important power.
That might be, but Medvedev chose to visit a part of the United States that boldly demonstrates two of Russia’s greatest weaknesses: creativity and innovation. “It’s not by chance that I came here,” Medvedev admitted to an audience at Stanford University. “I wanted to see with my own eyes the origin of success.” And it’s no wonder: Can you think of a significant Russian technological invention of recent times?
The problem isn’t the Russian people. Thousands of them are at work across Silicon Valley creating the very products and services Medvedev came to emulate.
No, the problem is the Russian government, still a brutal, capricious bureaucracy guilty of “contract-style killings,” the State Department says, “continuing centralization of power in the executive branch, along with corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law” and “continuing media restrictions” that “result in an erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the population.”
Medvedev offered a typically Russian 10-point plan to tackle these issues and others in a nasty thicket of related problems. He read the list from an Apple iPad, occasionally swiping his finger up or down when he lost his place. Actually, when he finished, he’d cited 11 points, and I could have listed half a dozen more. For example, he said nothing about media censorship along with the harassment, intimidation and killing of journalists.
But the way Medvedev told it, all of that will change. And an engine of that change will be a new Russian Silicon Valley in Skolkovo, a Moscow suburb. In California, he met with executives at Cisco, Apple, Twitter. He wore jeans, a jacket and an open-collar shirt – the local uniform. Introducing him to the Stanford audience, provost John Etchemendy noted that he was among the first Russians to get an iPhone. Medvedev nodded and with a grin held up his iPad.
He might be an early adapter, but the hurdles his nation faces are daunting. Russians and foreigners who dare to invest in the country too often find that once they succeed, they are thrown in jail and their properties confiscated or nationalized.
For example, William Browder, the largest foreign-portfolio investor in Russia, was denied re-entry to Russia and his companies confiscated after he tried to expose corruption, the Wall Street Journal reported. One of his lawyers was arrested and died in prison when his jailors refused to provide medical treatment. “My advice to U.S. technological companies” that Medvedev tried to woo this week “is to steer clear of Russia because it’s insanity to go there,” he told the paper.
Meeting with Stanford officials before his speech, Medvedev was clearly aware of the troubles his initiatives face.
“Unfortunately for us,” he said, “venture capitalism is not going so well so far. No one wants to take the risk. It’s a problem of culture, Steve Jobs told me today. We need to change the mentality.”