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Russia: 25 years after perestroika

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Russia. File Photo: AP/RIA Novosti  

This year marks 25 years since Mikhail Gorbachev launched his “perestroika” reforms that ended the Cold War but also led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unexpectedly, Mr. Gorbachev's pro-democracy and pro-market reforms have a new relevance in today's Russia.

Mr. Gorbachev first used the word “perestroika” — which means “reconstruction” or “rebuilding” in Russian — in his speech at the Communist Party Plenum a month after assuming the post of General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985.

The new Soviet leader initially attempted to reform the state-controlled over-centralised economy along market lines without dismantling the political system. Before long, he found that it was impossible to push through economic transformations without weakening the grip of the old-guard Communist Party cadres who dug their heels against his reforms. Mr. Gorbachev then embarked on political reforms, ending one-party monopoly and allowing multi-candidate contested elections.

The challenges facing Russia today in some ways resemble those Mr. Gorbachev dealt with 25 years ago. In his annual state-of-the-nation address in November 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev said the Russian economy needed to be urgently reformed to overcome its “primitive structure, a humiliating dependence on raw materials” and a “shamefully low competitiveness.” Mr. Medvedev called for the all-round modernisation of Russia and identified five thrust sectors that should act as locomotives for the rest of the economy: nuclear energy, space technology, IT industries, innovative pharmaceuticals and energy production and saving technologies.

In pursuing his modernisation agenda, Mr. Medvedev faces the same dilemma as Mr. Gorbachev. Like Mr. Gorbachev, he is aware that economic modernisation can succeed only in a democratic environment that allows a “free competition of ideas” and enables people “to assume responsibility for the state of affairs in their home village or town, and realise that only an active position can set the heavy machine that is government bureaucracy in motion.”

However, so far Mr. Medvedev has made only cosmetic changes to the Russian political system, such as allowing parties that fail to clear the 7 per cent election threshold a couple of seats in the federal and regional legislatures. The changes do little to encourage political competition and do not challenge what Mr. Gorbachev called the monopolisation of power by one party, United Russia, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The electronic media remain under tight government control.

Mr. Gorbachev, who will turn 80 next year, feels the democratic reforms he launched suffered setbacks under his successors, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. “I am deeply convinced that the country can progress only on the path of democracy. But we have seen many reverses here in recent years. Democratic processes have stalled and often backtracked,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in an article to mark the 25th anniversary of “perestroika.”

Democracy in Russia in recent years has been routinely criticised in the West, but coming from the architect of Russia's democratic reforms, the criticism gains extra weight. Arguing that Russia needs a new “perestroika,” Mr. Gorbachev says, “Russia is again facing the challenge of change.” Mr. Putin's system of “managed democracy” increasingly resembles the Soviet communist system, according to him. Addressing a conference at the Gorbachev Foundation recently, he described Mr. Putin's United Russia as a “replica of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), only worse.” He lamented that there is no true division of powers, as the executive authority makes all decisions and Parliament rubberstamps them. “We have the institutions: we have a Parliament, though I am not sure you can call it a Parliament, we have courts. We seem to have everything, but we don't. It's like decorations,” he said.

Mr. Gorbachev links his hopes for a new “perestroika” in Russia with its new President. He has heartily embraced Mr. Medvedev's call for the all-round modernisation of Russia, but warned that unless Russia's political system is also modernised to unleash the creative instinct in every Russian citizen, economic modernisation may fail.

“Modernisation will not happen if people are sidelined, if they are just pawns. If the people are to feel and act like citizens, there is only one prescription: democracy, including the rule of law and an open and honest dialogue between the government and the people.”

Mr. Medvedev has affirmed his democratic credentials many times during his first two years as President. He famously declared: “freedom is better than non-freedom.” In his programme-setting article, Forward, Russia, last year, Mr. Medvedev said Russia would eventually have “an extremely open, flexible and inwardly complex” political system — one where parliamentary parties would compete for power “as in a majority of democratic states.”

At the same time, Mr. Medvedev's steps in promoting more democracy in Russia so far have disappointed many among his supporters, including Mr. Gorbachev. “There is a growing feeling that the government is afraid of civil society and would like to control everything,” he wrote in his article.

Responding to critics, Mr. Medvedev has argued that political reforms are already headed in the proper direction and that “we will not rush” these changes. The President clearly does not want his reforms to meet the fate of “perestroika,” which ended with the disintegration of Soviet Union. For many Russians, Mr. Gorbachev himself came to symbolise that collapse. He is intensely unpopular in Russia, in stark contrast with his perception in the West.

A recent opinion poll showed that Russians have a “perestroika complex” — a fear that Mr. Medvedev's reforms may provoke upheavals similar to what they lived through during Mr. Gorbachev's time. According to the poll, only 11 per cent of Russians are enthusiastic about Mr. Medvedev's modernisation agenda because people are sceptical of his ability to transform the country without wreaking havoc in their personal lives.

Mr. Gorbachev concedes that there is “fear” among people and the authorities that “a new round of modernisation might lead to instability and even chaos.” But, he argues, “fear is a bad guide in politics; we must overcome it … Today, Russia has many free, independently minded people who are ready to assume responsibility and uphold democracy. But a great deal depends now on how the government acts.”

Mr. Gorbachev urges Russia's leaders to learn from the mistakes of his “perestroika,” when failure to reform the political system in time triggered the break-up of the country. “Our main mistake was we acted too late to reform the Communist Party … The party's top bureaucracy organised the attempted coup in August 1991, which scuttled the reforms,” he wrote.

Some analysts, however, warn Mr. Medvedev against “a naive belief in the miraculous creative powers of the market and western-style democracy” that can somehow help modernise Russia. “Russia is going through a dangerous period, with President Medvedev potentially taking on a Gorbachev-like role in the history of the new Russia — much to the joy of the United States and its satellites, I suspect,” says political commentator Eugene Kolesnikov.

Other experts warn Mr. Medvedev against pushing too hard with his democratic agenda as it may diminish his chances of a second term after 2012. “Russia's leading businessmen, although somewhat tired of Putin, want him to return to the presidency in 2012 because they feel Medvedev may be too unpredictable and might rock the boat too much,” cautions Vladimir Frolov, head of a public relations company.

The anniversary of Mr. Gorbachev's “perestroika” showed that the question of the pace and combination of economic and political reforms is as burning an issue in today's Russia as it was in the Soviet Union a quarter-of-a-century ago. Like Mr. Gorbachev before him, Mr. Medvedev too should steer a careful course between Scylla and Charybdis — rushing too fast or going too slow may be equally dangerous for Russia's modernisation.


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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 7:02:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Russia-25-years-after-perestroika/article16304542.ece

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