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24 Dec, 2009 16:25

Medvedev the Modernizer

The character of the Russian people will advance modernization, President Medvedev said in a nationally televised interview, but some question who will carry the biggest burden.

Medvedev, appearing in a live interview with representatives of the major Russian television networks, stuck to the script of his “Go Russia” article, published in September, by advocating an all-encompassing modernization program – and without the spilt blood, sweat and tears that accompanied past modernization efforts.

The interviewers pulled no punches with the president, and asked some truly candid questions concerning his ambitious plans for tuning up Russia’s engine for the 21st century

After acknowledging that the Russian people are living better now than 15 years ago, Medvedev admitted that Russia’s resource-dependency is placing a heavy drag on the economy.

“We still have the previous economic system, based on the raw materials market, on the marketing of our raw materials, fuels first and foremost,” the president said. “Any slump in raw materials prices deals painful blows to our economy.”

Russia’s seven-year economic boom, largely fueled by high commodity prices, came to a screeching halt with last year’s global financial crisis.

The Crash of 2008 exposed the hidden dangers of becoming overly dependent on raw resources – namely oil, gas and metals – that have served as both a blessing and a curse for Russia since its entry into the free-market jungle in 1991.

Beginning in July 2008, when oil was selling for $147 a barrel, Russia soon found itself on a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride as those barrels lost 73% of their value by February 2009. Curing Russia’s resource addiction is just one part of a complex puzzle.

The president also drew attention to the question of Russian competitiveness, the frailties of which were also exposed during the global meltdown.

“We have too many uncompetitive enterprises that must be re-equipped and converted into modern ones,” the Russian president said. “And for this reason it is extremely important to ensure that the innovative nature of production development… gains the upper hand.”

Across Russia, there are hundreds of “mono-cities” – one factory towns – but the poster city for modernization is the northwestern town of Pikalyovo, population 22,000.

In June, employees of Oleg Deripaska’s BaselCement Company staged a dramatic strike for unpaid wages and benefits. Their actions led to a visit by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who scolded the business owners, ordering them to pay 41.2 million roubles in unpaid salaries.

A special crisis team was also organized to monitor economic developments in other regions.

The Pikalyovo example provides a partial answer to a rather curious question posted to the president concerning the will of the people to carry out the modernization.

In response to the question: “Have the people lost their willpower [to proceed with an ambitious modernization of the country] after all of the numerous wars and social experiments,” Medvedev expressed his faith in the “national character” of the Russian people to overcome all challenges.

“We cannot say that something has dramatically changed over the past 150 years, undermining the willpower and national character of our people,” he said. “Otherwise we would have lost the Great Patriotic War and… would not have been able to revitalize the country and operate the new state.”

The Russian president then alluded to those peculiarities of Russia that sets the nation apart from the rest of the world, which, Medvedev believes, will give it the power to move forward.

“Life has never been easy in our country; the weather is cold, it's difficult to grow crops and there were various cataclysms,” Medvedev said, while stressing how these national factors molded the Russian psyche for big things.

“All these [factors] formed the national character. We have quite a number of problems, but we are capable of coping with them.”

Modernization – at what cost?

The very question of modernization is an extremely sensitive issue in Russia, and one that immediately triggers passionate debate. After all, due in large part to the country’s vast size, modernization schemes of past epochs were invariably punctuated with a tremendous amount of human suffering. Suffice it to consider the history behind Peter the Great’s modernization and westernization programs, and the tremendous toll it entailed in terms of human sacrifice.

More recently, Stalin’s forced industrialization, which transformed Russia from a predominantly agricultural country into an industrial powerhouse practically overnight, is a chapter of Russian history filled with endless footnotes of misfortune.

Now, with another round of modernization, Russian-style, being ordered on high, a great debate is raging as to whether Russia can pursue a program of modernization without the blood and upheaval that accompanied past efforts.

Viktor Linnik, the editor-in-chief of Russian weekly “Slovo” agrees with the need for modernization in Russia, but questions what social strata of Russian society will carry the burden of the effort.

“The modernization itself will be accompanied by some sort of stress and hardship,” Linnik told RT. “But the question is: Will the whole nation carry the burden of modernization, or will it just be the poor people, the impoverished layers of society, as was the case with the previous reforms?”

“If the burden is spread evenly in the population,” he said, “then I think it is possible to carry out modernization successfully. If not, then I think we will be back to square one.”

Alexander Prokhanov, a member of the secretariat of the Writers Union of the Russian Federation and the editor-in-chief of ultra-nationalist newspaper “Zavtra” (Tomorrow), was more skeptical of Medvedev’s plans for a nationwide modernization.

“I don’t know what kind of modernization Medvedev is talking about,” Prokhanov said in comments to RT, “but what I do know is that all true modernizations of the past – if we take the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries – were implemented via a concentration of resources. And resources should be concentrated, since they’re normally limited.”

Prokhanov then alluded to the painful Chinese experience of modernization, arguing that Russia would be forced to follow a similarly tortuous path.

“Let me also give you an example of a ‘tiny’ country, called China,” Prokhanov said. “Harsh mobilization and centralization… and extremely violent, severe methods of pressure upon everyone who is against modernization.”

The Zavtra editor’s tough conclusion: “I think that modernization Medvedev-style is fake, it is a bluff.”

Finally, Nikolay Svanidze, a Russian TV and radio host and member of the Public Chamber of Russia, weighed in on the debate.

“I fully agree with the idea of President Medvedev,” Svanidze said. “It is absolutely fair. The only thing I don’t see is how to realize this idea.”

Svanidze then disagreed with the argument that all modernization efforts in Russia have been necessarily harsh and brutal.

“Serfdom was abolished under Tsar Alexander II,” Svanidze told RT. “Therefore, authoritarian modernization is not our only experience. But, anyway, it’s just words… We have a situation when modernization is possible only through serious, deep and fundamental reforms – both political and public. Without them we are not going to succeed. There will be no modernization without reforms.”

Svanidze then concluded with the argument that Russia must embrace “European-type modernization,” even though nobody really wants it.

“We no longer have this ability, an ability to modernize Russia like Peter the Great,” he said. “That was horrible. I am not talking about what happened under Stalin, because I cannot call that modernization at all. Peter the Great carried out modernization but he did that in a most ruthless and horrible way. And again, those were only half measures.

“Anyway, we cannot afford it any longer. There’s only one way for us – that is normal European-type modernization. We need to get down to it. But it’s difficult, because the elites are not ready for it and ordinary people don’t want it either.”

Robert Bridge, RT