Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Medvedev sets out ambitious vision

By Steven Eke
Russian affairs analyst, BBC World Service

Dmitry Medvedev
Domestic reforms were high on Dmitry Medvedev's agenda

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia has given his second state of the nation address since becoming the country's leader.

It was a frank assessment of Russia's many problems - but also his vision for a modernised, science-based country freed from the political legacy of a troubled past.

Remarkably, it was almost entirely devoted to domestic issues.

Mr Medvedev noted a difficult situation in the Middle East and highlighted Afghanistan but the international picture was very much a secondary issue.

Russia is an archaic, paternalistic society, said Mr Medvedev, and one that can no longer rely on the achievements of the past to secure a prosperous future.

New thinking

A fundamental change was needed, he insisted, incorporating both a historical shift in the Russian economy and a new way of thinking for its people.

Given Russia's painful history, few analysts would risk labelling this vision "revolutionary". Furthermore, it remains very much a wish list, rather than a presentation of a policy programme.

Among the specific sectors of the Russian economy that will be engaged to modernise the country, Mr Medvedev emphasised energy, healthcare, space exploration and digital media.

Dmitry Medvedev with teenage pingpong players at a school
The president has firm views on physical education in schools

He said that broadband internet access, G4 mobile phone networks and digital television must be available everywhere within five years.

He also singled out the pharmaceutical industry, currently the source of great concern in Russia for its inability to provide the population with sufficient high-quality, Russian-made medicines.

There was a great deal of detail. At one stage, Mr Medvedev even specified how many hours schoolchildren should spend doing physical education each week (three).

Massive transfer

In this, a certain irony may have been lost on Mr Medvedev. He asserts that he wants a "society of young, critically thinking, responsible, clever people", yet still specifies the minutiae of policy, right from the very top. So very typically Russian.

Nonetheless, Mr Medvedev's vision itself is an ambitious project, especially given that historically, modernisation in Russia, whether under Tsar Peter the Great or the early Soviet leaders, has usually only been achieved by force and at a terrible human cost.

Some of the important announcements may be missed abroad.

Soyuz rocket
The space industry is among sectors Mr Medvedev wants to see modernised

Most importantly, Mr Medvedev's pledge to transform state "corporations" into stock-holding companies.

The state corporations were the mechanism by which Vladimir Putin and his entourage engineered a massive transfer of industrial ownership from oligarchs who opposed them, to others (often friends or long-term acquaintances) who backed them.

They are seen by many as extremely inefficient and part of the cause of the systemic corruption plaguing Russia.

Equally significantly, Mr Medvedev called for smaller political parties to have greater access to the political stage and for an end to the "chaos" typical of early voting in local elections.

Votes in the regions and in Moscow earlier this year led to rare protests by citizens and politicians outraged at sometimes blatant electoral fraud.

Brain drain

Mr Medvedev wants Russia to be transformed by scientific modernisation. But one of the country's great post-Soviet tragedies, arguably, is the immense brain-drain of innovative and talented people.

Millions of those Russians now living outside Russia have a scientific education or training. Very few have taken advantage of generous repatriation incentives offered by the Russian government over recent years.

This raises a simple, yet difficult question. Does Russia actually have the potential for scientific innovation? No-one seems to know.

But when it comes to industrial potential, it might suffice to ask readers of this piece - when was the last time you bought a useful, reliable, affordable consumer good made in Russia?

Mr Medvedev's tone is quite distinct from that of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Yet this might just be the greatest problem for Mr Medvedev.

Most Russians say they believe real power lies with Mr Putin and his reputation is not that of a political liberal.

The former president clearly believes in the power of the state to bring about positive change and certainly is convinced that the might of the state needs to be brought into play to defend Russia's position on the international stage.

Despite his critics who describe him as part of the Putin-Medvedev "problem tandem", Mr Medvedev still appears - appears - so different.

Right down to the way Russian television films him sitting in a library with a cup of tea. There's none of the shirtless machismo that Vladimir Putin does, albeit with a widely acknowledged elan.

But Mr Medvedev has been in office for nearly two years. And many Russians are beginning to ask, how much longer can he set out a vision of liberalisation, civil society, critical thinking and open debate, without actually taking steps to make it a reality?

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