DMITRY MEDVEDEV has proved timid, ineffectual and ultimately powerless during his tenure as Russia’s president. But give him this: The Deep Purple fan at least has recognized that the authoritarian regime built by his boss, Vladimir Putin, is unworkable. In his final “state of the state” speech, Mr. Medvedev proposed Thursday to undo key parts of Mr. Putin’s concentration of power over the past decade by returning to the election of regional governors, making it easier for political parties and presidential candidates to register, and establishing an independent state broadcaster.
Some analysts quickly concluded that the presidential speech reflected a panicked Kremlin effort to defuse a protest movement that has brought tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other cities; it came just two days before a new demonstration. That could be true; but Mr. Medvedev has been delivering such addresses for several years. In 2009, he denounced Russia’s “primitive raw materials economy” and “chaotic” foreign and domestic policies “dictated by nostalgia and prejudice.” In 2010 he gave a speech noting the urgent need to modernize by attracting Western technology and foreign investment.
Mr. Medvedev, in short, appears to have recognized, at least to some degree, that Mr. Putin’s bullying of domestic and foreign business, the massive criminality of his government, and his KGB-style repression of peaceful opponents is unsustainable. Though he was not able to significantly change the regime, he has been proved right by the uprising by members of the country’s urban middle class, which seems to have been jolted out of a decade of passivity by Mr. Putin’s decision to return to the presidency next year.
The reforms suggested by the president would be a start toward a more democratic system better able to compete in a global economy. But the odds that Mr. Putin will embrace them seem long. Already he is talking about watered-down versions — like allowing the election of governors after he has screened the candidates. The principal project on the president-to-be’s agenda is a neo-imperial Eurasian Union, restoring the Kremlin’s dominion over parts of the former Soviet Union. And Mr. Putin’s own public reaction to the protests has mixed ridicule with claims that the demonstrators are orchestrated and paid by the State Department and other sinister Western interests.
Mr. Medvedev has been expected to return to the post of prime minister after the presidential election in March. If he does, he may have the chance to press for the kind of incremental political change he proposed — or at least to keep talking about it. How far he goes, and whether he has any more success than in the past four years, will likely depend on whether the popular protest movement continues and grows. The massive turnout of demonstrators on a freezing Christmas Eve may indicate that Mr. Putin will not have the free hand to which he has become accustomed.