Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kremlin's grip puts Medvedev vision in doubt

By Catherine Belton in Moscow (Financial Times)

Dmitry Medvedev, who is most likely to be Russia's next president, yesterday unveiled a liberal-sounding economic agenda to cut back red tape and clamp down on corruption. However, he offered little sign that he would attempt to carve out a path independent from Vladimir Putin.

"One of the key elements of our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power," Mr Medvedev said in a speech, just two weeks before presidential elections on March 2. As Mr Putin's preferred successor, he is expected to sweep to victory.

Mr Medvedev said he wanted to make freedoms, both economic and personal, the cornerstone of his policies, in which the rule of law and property rights would reign. But economists and politicians warned it was far from clear whether Mr Medvedev would be able to push through any such liberal initiatives when faced with the vested interests of the Kremlin so long as he remained in the shadow of his predecessor.

Mr Putin, who will stay largely in charge of economic policy as prime minister to his protégé, has already upstaged Mr Med-vedev by presenting his own strategy for Russia's development up to 2020 last week.

In his last annual press conference this week before he steps down as president, Mr Putin staked out a powerful role for himself implementing his development plan. He said Mr Medvedev's economic programme, in contrast, would deal only with the next four years and merely "add detail" to his own vision.

"We've tried to do this all before. A great deal was not implemented," said Yevgeny Yasin, rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a co-author of Mr Putin's programme in 2000. "Instead, they carried out completely different tasks which the country could have done without, such as increasing the role of the state, and control over the electoral system and the media."

Mr Yasin said the sudden inflow of oil dollars as prices soared soon after Mr Putin came to power led the Kremlin to ditch most of the plan for liberal and institutional reform that he had helped plot. Instead of cutting back on the number of state officials, under Mr Putin their number had grown, as had corruption, Mr Yasin said.

Mr Medvedev, speaking in Siberia, repeated calls by Mr Putin for a reduction in value added tax and presented a detailed breakdown of ways he wanted to raise living standards via improvements in education and healthcare.

In a rare sign he might pursue a more liberal agenda than Mr Putin, he called for a reduction in the number of state officials on the boards of some of Russia's biggest corporations. "They should be replaced by truly independent directors, which the state would hire to implement its plans," he said.

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