Go, Russia!

Democracy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev covered a lot of ground in his annual state-of-the-nation address on Thursday, but the after-speech reports were dominated by talk of time zones, YouTube clips and the body language of Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev’s address was basically an expanded version of a policy essay he wrote back in September entitled “Go, Russia!”  Unlike other recent high-profile speeches by the Russian leadership, foreign policy – particularly in relation to the United States and NATO – was largely absent from the address.  Instead, in keeping with the “Go, Russia” theme, Medvedev talked largely about what Russia needs to do to ensure a prosperous future for itself, he focused particularly on: diversifying the Russian economy away from its reliance on extraction industries (primarily natural gas and oil), growing new industrial sectors (he talked of developing a Russian version of Silicon Valley) and on fighting the ridiculous levels of corruption present in society.

You really can’t argue with Dmitry on any of those points.  Many of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states got the message that having an economy solely based on taking things out of the ground was a bad idea and have since taken steps to diversify (see Dubai as an example).  While economists and development analysts have been warning for years that endemic corruption in Russia was standing in the way of the country developing a functioning civil society and true middle class.   Most of the analysis of Medvedev’s speech then didn’t criticize him for its ideas, but instead for lacking specifics on how he planned to accomplish any of these goals.   Some said the only concrete proposal offered up by Medvedev was an idea to reduce the number of time zones in Russia down from eleven.

So instead of talking about the speech itself, many analysts wound up talking about how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reacted to the performance by his partner/protégé/puppet/usurper (take your pick).  Officially Putin and Medvedev refer to their positions as Prime Minister and President as a “tandem rule.”  Unofficially the Putin/Medvedev combo has sparked renewed interest in the old Cold War parlor game of “Kremlinology” – the art of trying to divine which members of the Soviet inner circle were rising powers and which were on their way out based on their position in relation to the General Secretary in official Soviet photographs.

Putin was said to have sat “rigid” in his seat through most of the speech, but was also caught by the TV cameras staring up at the ceiling at a few points.  The BBC suggested that much of Medvedev’s speech could be seen as veiled criticism of Putin’s previous eight years as president – for example, President Putin talked about tackling Russia’s corruption problem, yet had few tangible successes (odd for a man who wields as much power as he does).  Whether the speech was merely Medvedev demonstrating his authority as president or, as Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the think-tank the Center for Political Technologies suggested, “a claim for re-election in 2012,” is an open question (back in February I wrote a column wondering if Medvedev may yet prove to be the William Taft to Putin’s Teddy Roosevelt).  We may get a clearer idea of where Putin stands on November 21 when he addresses the party congress of United Russia (his and Medvedev’s political party).

Interestingly, at several points in his speech Medvedev cited responses he had gotten on his LiveJournal blog (LiveJournal is a top blogging site in Russia) after the publication of “Go, Russia!” in September.  But on the same day Medvedev was giving his state-of-the-nation address, social media was launching a nationwide scandal in Russia as well.  Alexei Dymovsky, formerly a major with the Novorossiysk police department, also addressed the nation on Thursday over charges he made via YouTube and his personal website about rampant corruption within the nation’s police force.

Maj. Dymovsky alleged (among other things) that the police department in Novorossiysk regularly invented and “solved” fictional crimes to boost their closure rates, that rookie officers were willing to work for low salaries because they knew they could make much more on bribes and that he secured his own promotion to major after arresting and making a case against a man he knew was innocent.  Dymovsky was immediately fired by the Novorossiysk police, which also threatened to file a lawsuit against him for slander, Dymovsky though stood by his claims during the Moscow press conference.

Along with viewing his video confessional hundreds of thousands of times, Russians are now spinning conspiracy theories about Maj. Dymovsky.  One paints him not as a disgruntled police officer, but rather as part of a Kremlin-backed sting against a group of high-ranking police officials.  A counter-theory says that Dymovsky is actually being paid by the Americans (through USAID via a Novorossiysk human rights organization) to undermine the Russian police forces.  Since Thursday though at least three other Russian police officers have posted their own YouTube clips alleging abuse of power.

I wonder if this is the kind of social media feedback Medvedev was hoping for?

YouTube, Vladimir Putin, Russia, internet, Dmitry Medvedev, Development