Outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev used his final State of the Nation address to promise a “comprehensive reform” of Russia’s political system.
Key proposals include directly elected regional governors, making it much easier for new political parties to register for parliamentary and presidential elections, and a form of proportional representation in the State Duma.
Proposals to increase participation in national elections seem the most interesting.
Medvedev specified that, in order to register for national elections, political parties will in future need to collect only 500 signatures, rather than the 40,000 currently required. Restrictions on candidates entering Presidential elections have also been reduced – instead of having to collect 2 million signatures to register, independent candidates will in future have to collect only 300,000 signatures and candidates representing registered but small political parties will have to collect just 100,000 signatures.Little detail was provided about the proposal to elect regional governors, which was actually been put forward by Vladimir Putin in his televised interview earlier this month. Putin’s initial proposal seemed to indicate that potential candidates for these elections would be pre-vetted by the Kremlin, but this suggestion was notably absent from Medvedev’s speech, leading to speculation that it may no longer be required.
Although his supporters deny it, Medvedev’s proposed reforms are clearly aimed at lowering the tension in the country, and while they will never satisfy many, they are likely to attract some of the more moderate opposition to Putin and United Russia. They have already brought grudging praise from Vladimir Ryzhkov, a co-chairman of the unregistered People’s Freedom Party (Parnas), who told RIA Novosti that
“Of course, the president has heard society’s demands and made a step forward… He in particular admitted that deep political reform is required, that there should be a free registration of parties, single-member constituencies, direct election of governors and that the election commission formation systems should be changed.
These are all demands voiced at Bolotnaya Square. These are the most radical steps in many years,” he said, adding however that these were “half-measures.”
In my opinion these are certainly useful reforms, and to be welcomed. It’s important not to read too much into them, though. They will have no impact on the Presidential election scheduled for next March, and the next election run under these rules, assuming they are approved, is likely to be in 2016.
Response to protests
In a nod to this month’s protests about the recent Duma elections, Medvedev opened his speech by observing that all opinions were welcome and that he believed they were a sign of a healthy democracy. He explained that the Russian Government would “treat any criticism of state institutions and individual officials with the utmost attention and respect.” However, he also added a stern warning:
“Attempts to manipulate Russian citizens, to mislead them and incite social discord are unacceptable. We will not let instigators and extremists involve society in their reckless activities, and we will not allow foreign interference in our internal affairs. Russia needs democracy, not chaos.”
There was little about foreign policy in Medvedev’s address. His key message was that Russia was open to dialogue with NATO on missile defence, but only if NATO took Russia’s concerns seriously.
“I only want to confirm that we are open for constructive dialogue and substantive work with our partners, if they learn to listen to us. We count on reciprocity in order to reach mutually acceptable solutions as soon as possible and to maintain an atmosphere of trust.”
To stop it looking as though Russia is entirely on the back foot in foreign affairs, Medvedev also talked up the Eurasian Economic Union, that Russia intends to create along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, calling it “an ambitious task” that would “act as a link in the European and Asia-Pacific regions”.
Here’s a video of the foreign policy section of Medvedev’s address.
As you can see, it was a very short section.
As with any state of the nation speech, Medvedev made sure to dwell on his Government’s achievements.
Russia’s economy is recovering nicely from the recent economic dip, he explained, noting that last year’s growth of 4% was far higher than most major economies, and that Russia’s inflation last year was the lowest since 1991. As a result, he said, unemployment had dropped by a staggering 2 million in the past two years – that’s a massive drop in such a short period, and it’s not clear how accurate a claim this is.
Unsurprisingly, given that we’re fast approaching an election, Medvedev took pains to spell out that, because of Russia’s good financial health, Russian social programmes would not face the same cuts as are being experienced elsewhere in Europe.
“We must continue living within our means, without squandering resources, especially in the conditions of an approaching global recession. But this does not mean that we must give up new social programs or cut existing obligations. All these obligations will be met in full.”
Russia’s demographic crisis of the past two decades seems to be reversing as well. Average life expectancy has increased by over three years since 2006 to an average of 69, and to 75 for women – no direct mention of the still low male life expectancy. More children are being born than in the past, and mortality rates have also dropped.
If you want to read the full text of Dmitry Medvedev’s final State of the Nation address, you can find it on the Kremlin.ru website. As I write this it’s partly uploaded – the translators must be struggling to keep up with the workload, as it seems that a new chunk of the text is being uploaded every hour or so.