Late last week on November 6th at 9am Moscow time, just as the city was waking to the news that one of its most talented journalists had been nearly beaten to death overnight, President Medvedev did something he’s only done three times as commander and chief: he vetoed a piece of legislation. Previously Medvedev had only exercised the veto to send back to the parliament bills with technical errors (geographic, and so on). This time his objections were ‘principled’ — and he attached an open note, personally addressed to Duma and Federation Council chairmen Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Mironov. In the letter, Medvedev wrote that the legislation sent to him for approval (which would have banned anyone convicted of violating public assembly laws from organizing a protest) “contains provisions impeding the free exercise of constitutional rights to assembly, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” The President even went on to explain how public demonstrations “are one of the most effective forms of impacting the activities of state bodies and local self-government through expressing public opinion.”
All this comes roughly two months after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin surfed negative headlines for telling Kommersant’s Andrei Kolesnikov that unsanctioned protesters deserve to be clubbed in the head. The veto closely follows the October 31st sanctioned rally by ‘Strategy 31′ — this time led by Liudmilla Alexeeva (who split with founder Eduard Limonov, much to the delight of many liberals and certainly to the delight of the Kremlin). Just a few days before that, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zor’kin, published an op-ed in the state newspaper, Rossiiskaia Gazeta, criticizing the European Court and the general concept of foreigners influencing the domestic legal system. (Zor’kin would make an excellent Republican, if he ever decides to migrate to the United States.)
Oppositionist newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta linked the Zor’kin/op-ed and Medvedev/veto stories, asking rhetorically, “How many defenders does the Constitution have?” In an editorial, NezGaz says the Zor’kin op-ed is proof that judges play politics and that the courts are nowhere near functioning in an independent role. Regarding Medvedev’s veto, NezGaz ends on a note of hope (the veto is “the only channel to transform civil activity into real action”), but argues that the stunt was fundamentally political theater.
NezGaz is not alone in its assessment of Medvedev’s veto. Indeed, nearly every Russian media source to cover this story openly and unhesitatingly calls it a PR stunt. Marina Ozerova at Moskovskii Komsomolets has one of the most comprehensive, ‘behind the scenes’ analyses of the machinations that led to the veto. The zakonoproekt was the brainchild of Duma deputy and United Russia member Sergei Markov (pictured to the left), who was joined by deputies from ‘Just Russia’ and LDPR — the Kremlin’s faux Left- and Right-wing parties. Then the public outcry against the bill reached a fever-pitch, and the ‘Just Russia’ sponsor backed out — only to be replaced by another deputy from the same party. Eventually, even the LDPR co-author announced that he no longer supported the bill (though he never formally removed his signature). In the end, neither the ‘Just Russia’ nor LDPR sponsors voted for the legislation.
Though the ‘opposition’ co-authors came to view the bill as a political liability, the President’s official representative to the Duma, Garri Minkh, never once spoke out publicly against the legislation. Indeed silence is commonly interpreted to mean consent, and yet clearly something was in the air that alerted these politicians to withhold their votes in the end.
It’s here that a piece by Ivan Rodin in NezGaz fits in. Titled “A Play of Federal Proportions,” Rodin argues that the veto was orchestrated by master puppeteer Vladislav Surkov in an effort to “rehabilitate President Medvedev’s liberal reputation.” A particularly interesting thing about this article is how the author explains Medvedev’s sudden need for a PR recharge. Some of the black eyes responsible for this need are expected, such as the unpopularity of the FSB reforms and the resignation of Ella Pamfilova. But to this list, Rodin adds the firing of Yuri Luzhkov — something Western observers widely interpreted as a boost for Dmitri Anatolyevich. Here’s what he says about Luzhkov:
Medvedev removed him on the grounds of a loss of trust, apparently not wanting to ever explain why exactly. Of course, the state television channels tried to do this in place of the President, but it only turned out worse. The former mayor came out looking like a victim of persecution — something he overtly stated in a letter to the President and in several interviews. But Medvedev the Liberal didn’t want to respond to any of these arguments. And where there could have been an open discussion about the shortcomings of the Moscow government (about which Medvedev had hinted in the past), what we got was the traditional Russian disposition: I’m the boss and you’re a fool.
This, I think, is an excellent explanation of why people like Yulia Latynina and others have called the Luzhkov incident an embarrassment for Medvedev. Indeed, it also helps us understand why Luzhkov has been so loud-mouthed about being fired. By refusing to resign quietly, he forced the Kremlin to remove him on the vague grounds of “a loss of trust.” The reason had to be vague, because any real explication would have amounted to a criticism of Moscow’s entire municipal infrastructure — a system the authorities must preserve to smoothly maintain the status quo.
Returning to the veto, Rodin argues that Surkov arranged the spectacle in order to shift the focus back onto Medvedev’s more democratic credentials. Indeed, coverage of the news by Izvestiia, Kommersant, and Expert all included favorable quotes from Liudmilla Alexeeva, who must be starting to wonder if she’s standing under some kind of presidential mistletoe, as she’s been gifted a coveted demonstration permit for Triumfal’naia Square and this veto all in the last couple of weeks.
For Rodin and some others, the story ends there. A fine PR stunt executed, Medvedev now reaps the rewards. This narrative, however, seems to be complicated by the fact that the President concluded his letter to the parliament on this note: “The rejection of this federal legislation does not mean that the current laws of the Russian Federation resolve all questions concerning the order and realization of public events utilizing the transportation infrastructure. Federal law could be improved based on aforementioned comments.” Indeed, these remarks seem to be aimed squarely at the Federation of Automotive-owners of Russia (FAR), which has attempted to exploit loopholes in existing Russian law to carry out rallies on the roads using cars.
There were other technicalities in the rejected legislation that are also being debated again in the parliament, such as a requirement that applications for protest permits be submitted three business days prior to the date (instead of three calendar days). Indeed, the bill’s original author, Deputy Markov, told Vremia Novostei that he would like to rewrite the legislation so that only repeat-offenders (retsidivisty) of demonstration laws would be barred from organizing protests. Meanwhile, the chairman of the presidential council on ‘promoting civil society,’ Mikhail Fedotov, has been throwing up roadblocks to slow the Duma’s deliberation process on revising the law. “The legislation has to be consistent and it has to accommodate law enforcement,” Fedotov said of its special provisions for cars involved in demonstrations.
Officials within United Russia have already promised to return the bill to Medvedev before the end of the year. Will it be a watered down version designed to save face for the party? Will it remain the work of anti-oppositionist hard-liners? If the latter, would Medvedev still sign it? If the the saga of this legislation continues, it undermines the idea that this was all a scripted effort to rehabilitate the liberalness of the President. Or maybe a temporary boost was all the Kremlin had in mind?