A panel of Carnegie Russia experts presented analysis of the current state of Russia's political and economic development and the likelihood of continuity or change in Dmitry Medvedev's first term as president of Russia. The panel included scholars-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center Nikolay Petrov and Maria Lipman and Carnegie senior associate Michael McFaul. Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies, served as moderator.
Petrov emphasized structural conditions delimiting the options available to the Russian leadership over the ability of any particular personality to radically change course. He noted that Medvedev, as Vladimir Putin's protégé, was unlikely to introduce major modifications to Putin's established trajectory and that he could not do so even if such was his desire.
He described his conception of the Kremlin-designed political system in Russia today, making reference to what he called the "mechanical configuration of power": the creation of elements that cannot operate indepedently and a highly hierarchical administration that is inherently inefficient and divorced from the realities of society.
At the same time, he argued that change is inevitable -- not because of Medvedev's intentions, but because of evolving facts on the ground, such as the demographic situation and the need to transition from recovery-based economic growth to modernization and expansion. Petrov said that one of the major features of the Russian regime -- controlled elections -- is becoming a source of major weakness as Russia faces a number of serious political, social, and economic challenges. Although these elections nominally legitimize the authorities, they do not provide any feedback from the population nor do they offer any opportunity for genuine political competition of the kind that could introduce diversity and accountability. He compared the Russian leadership to a dinosaur, with a small head far removed from the body politic.
Lipman focused on the evolution of the media from the relative pluralism of Boris Yeltsin's presidency to the tight control of Putin's system. She contrasted the interview Putin had as he was coming into the presidency in 2000 with the interview that his successor has recently had. While the journalists interviewing Putin were inquisitive and at times confrontational, Medvedev enjoyed a far more passive and respectful tone from the journalists who interviewed him. This, she said, was a sign of the success of Putin's project for the media.
She noted that the state and Gazprom were the two largest players in the national media market and that loyalty to the state is a requirement for sucess in any business sector, including media. The state's control of broadcast media is particularly important, as television is the overwhelmingly primary source of information for the Russian public. Meanwhile, on a regional level, journalists are routinely punished for attempting to uncover local malfeasance or corruption.
Although the Russian leadership has consolidated a majority of the media under its control, Lipman said, media with independent editorial content still exists. She speculated that there were a number of functions that having a tiny minority of independent media could serve: existing for the sake of external consumption, a valve to let off some steam, and potentially an in-house bulletin board for the use of elites to signal dissatisfaction or to inform the leadership of conflicts.
McFaul began his remarks by noting he would not use the term "democracy" to refer to the political system in place in Russia today. He said that political science as a discipline is struggling to properly code and understand systems such as Russia's and other countries whose regimes are "between" dictatorship and democracy. He illustrated this lack of clarity by referring to the lack of correspondence between various freedom coding scores when it comes to regimes that do not fall into either extreme of the political freedom spectrum.
With regard to Russia, McFaul noted the crucial significance of the fact that there was an election and that a new leader was appointed. In that way, he said, Russia is not like Uzbekistan. He elaborated on what he sees as three possible reasons that the Russian leadership decided to construct the system that exists today: (1) Putin has decided that this system is necessary for the modernization project he wishes to undertake; (2) in order to allow for theft by the elites, for which McFaul noted a controlled national media was crucial; and (3) to manage the transition. Now that Putin's plan for the transition has been fulfilled, it is an open question whether the regime can become a system for governance.
Having delineated the "why," McFaul put forward what he sees as the chief characteristics of the Russian regime: a lack of any defining ideology; little connection to citizenry -- the fact that this is not an autocracy of mobilization; no charismatic leader; the fact that the regime is not a military junta, and that a strategy of massive repression is not a viable alternative; the existence of foreign enemies, which is important for autocracies to survive; and the dependence of the regime's legitimacy upon performance, particularly in the economic sphere. McFaul believes Putin knows that this system is not sustainable over the long term, but that paradoxically he nonetheless emphasizes continuity. He expressed cautious hope that Medvedev's liberal-sounding speech in Krasnoyarsk -- which contained criticism of the current state of affairs in Russia and lacked a real precedent in recent Russian political history -- could signal a change in policy in the Kremlin.
He noted that he would not predict the future course of Russia's political development and reiterated his point about the failings of political science: although scholars can understand the structural conditions that make potential social and political crises in such regimes possible, the political science community does not do well at predicting when they will occur. McFaul sounded a note of warning on this point, saying that although poorly governed autocracies can last for a long time, if there is a crisis and Russia still lacks the democratic instruments to deal with it there could be a serious authoritarian retrenchment.
In response to questions, Petrov and Lipman made clear that they did not believe Medvedev's liberal rhetoric should be treated seriously. McFaul noted that such changes, if they were to take place, would likely occur at the margins and said that the situation is more optimistic than if hawk Sergei Ivanov had been chosen as president.