Russia’s crisis is worse than the rest of the world’s, writes Anders Åslund, due to inadequate reforms, extraordinary corruption and dependence on commodity exports. Although Dmitri Medvedev and his “ambitious technocrats” are ostensibly in charge, they have been unable to implement the necessary reforms as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remains the de facto dominant power.
The crisis has revealed how little Putin has done for the well-being of the Russian population during his time in office,” Åslund argues. The country now “faces a stark choice: either it embraces economic reforms and cleans up rampant corruption, or it continues Putin’s course of authoritarianism.”
Russia’s downward trajectory has implications for the Obama administration which has promised to press the reset button in US-Russia relations, writes the Hudson Institute’s S. Enders Wimbush. The President “would be well advised to go far beyond a simple reboot; he should change the software,” he argues, since Russia is a failing state and it will be “less agile, less powerful, and probably less stable” for the foreseeable future.
Medvedev may be striving to distinguish himself without pitting himself against Putin. He recently reached out to human rights activists and independent journalists, and promised to review the restrictive NGO law. But Garry Kasparov, leader of The Other Russia coalition, insists that Putin and Medvedev are both enemies of democracy, open competition, and free expression.
The awkward ‘tandemocracy’ has failed to generate new ideas or to address the need for urgent reform, argues former Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov. Only two percent of respondents to a survey by the independent Levada Center perceive Medvedev as representing fundamentally new policies, while 80 percent believe he is essentially, or completely, continuing Putin’s political course.
Russia’s new national security strategy suggests that authoritarian elements still have the upper hand. The strategy cites several threats to Russia, including “reconnaissance and other activities of special services and organizations of foreign states, as well as individuals aiming to inflict damage to the security of the Russian Federation.” As one analyst observes:
The word “other” in this phrase deserves special attention. It means that the authorities can declare any activity they dislike as being the subversive work of foreign intelligence agencies.
The strategy suggests that the security services will continue to harass and interfere with independent civil society organizations. It is already 40 percent more expensive and takes twice as long to register an NGO in Moscow than a company due to administrative and financial restrictions.
NGOs receiving foreign funding are being targeted, notes Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer from Voronezh, and the authorities are trying to link independent civil society groups with security threats:
In April the head of the Russian FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, announced at a meeting of the National Anti-terrorist Committee that “individual foreign NGOs provide information support to terrorists”. Although he did not give any specific facts, he was undoubtedly sending a signal to government officials who work with NGOs.
European pro-democracy NGOs want the European Union to put the issue of defending civil society on the diplomatic agenda. A report in Transitions Online, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, cites the efforts of a group of Czech democracy assistance and human rights NGOs:
In an open letter addressed to the EU, whose presidency is currently held by the Czech Republic, the NGOs, part of the DEMAS network, have called on Brussels to use the opportunity of the summit to encourage Russia to change the law and emphasize “that a healthy and independently working civic society in Russia is key for the European Union-Russia dialogue.”