On September 8th, Russia’s two most prominent Dimas (President Medvedev and Representative to NATO Rogozin) both delivered speeches in Yaroslavl at the Global Policy Forum. The theme of the conference was “The Modern State in the Age of Social Diversity.” Rogozin elected to take part in a talk dedicated to “Global Security and Local Conflicts.” When he took the floor, however, he dedicated his remarks to “the nationalities question in Europe and Russia,” declaring the failure of multiculturalism and “pseudo-tolerance.” When Medvedev addressed the Forum’s Plenary Session (hours after Rogozin spoke), the President delivered a long and forceful defense of diversity, blaming poverty for ethnic and religious tensions (echoing Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent statements), and criticizing those in Russia who would exploit nationality divisions.
Commenting on the fact that Medvedev did not (a) announce whether or not he would run for reelection in 2012, or (b) set aside his speech to discuss transport security in the wake of recent plane crashes, Ellen Barry of the New York Times criticized the President for “going ahead with his script, a 30-minute discourse on the state’s approach to diversity.” Ms. Barry’s point is not irrational. Every time Medvedev steps into public to speak and does not address the 2012 question, he appears more indecisive and unlikely to return to the Kremlin. Since Medvedev’s bungled press conference in May, when he built up journalists’ expectations about a reelection revelation and then didn’t deliver, the foreign press has lost all patience with Russia’s commander and chief. “By the time he took his seat, the implication seemed clear,” Barry writes, “Mr. Medvedev was not prepared to fight for his job.”
While Russia’s third president could very well turn out to be a one-termer, the evidence in Yaroslavl hardly implies that he’s not fighting for his job. A gaping omission in Barry’s September 11th article is any mention of Rogozin’s speech, which–placed next to Medvedev’s–represents a clear polemic between civic patriotism (Medvedev) and ethnic nationalism (Rogozin).
Readers should compare the two speeches and decide for themselves, but it’s important to understand the context, in order to appreciate why Medvedev’s ‘discourse on diversity’ was meaningful. The last time he participated in domestic affairs, Dmitri Rogozin was a political star. (Nezavisimaia Gazeta’s former chief editor, Vitaly Tretyakov, was once certain that Rogozin would be president, calling him “Russia’s freest-thinking and freest-speaking politician.”) He held a top position in the ‘Rodina’ coalition, a party dedicated to Russian ethnic nationalism that captured 9% of the vote in 2003, winning 37 seats in the Duma (one more than Zhirinovsky’s LDPR). When Rodina proved too independent (willing to incite ethnic hatred in campaign ads and criticizing pension monetization reforms), the party was folded into Spravedlivaia Rossiia, and Rogozin abandoned his position in parliament, ultimately settling for a post in Brussels in 2008.
Rogozin is still Russia’s representative to NATO, but it became clear earlier this year that United Russia is interested in redeploying the former Rodina captain to domestic politics. These rumors began in May, when the Justice Ministry agreed to register Rogozin’s ‘Congress of Russian Societies’ (KRO), suddenly, after years of attempts. This was within weeks of Putin announcing the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF)–a public organization designed to rejuvenate United Russia ahead of December’s parliamentary elections. Though Rogozin himself has remained illusive in interviews, it’s widely expected that KRO will join the ONF, injecting United Russia with a dose of nationalism that presumably aims to make it more competitive in a post-Manezh, post-Sagra nation.
Having demonstrated his charisma and free will in the past, Rogozin’s leash will be shorter if he indeed quits Brussels and joins a KRO-ONF campaign now. Nezavisimaia Gazeta claims that he could even land on United Russia’s top-ten list, assuring him a position as a deputy. Consequently, Rogozin is on track to become synonymous with the Party of Power–a risky venture for United Russia, but also a marriage that transforms criticisms of nationalism into attacks on Russia’s number one political party. Tatyana Stanovaya makes this argument in a September 9th analysis on Politcom.ru, going so far as to say that Medvedev’s Yaroslavl remarks were aimed not just at Rogozin, the ONF, and United Russia–but at Putin himself. (In this claim, she focuses on a part in Medvedev’s speech, where he puts the significance of minorities’ interests above those of the state, which reverses the Putin Years’ typical statist emphasis on majority mobilization.)
Like much else in Russian politics, it is true that rhetorical attacks on nationalism have been easy to ignore. When Medvedev formally announced the coming Duma elections, he singled out stirring up ethnic tensions as specifically out-of-bounds. “It’s not my request,” he clarified. “It’s my absolute demand.” As Ivan Yarstev noted the next day, however, LDPR and United Russia immediately dismissed the applicability of Medvedev’s warning, revealing it to be a rather empty threat.
And yet it does appear to have been a threat, which does not fit the picture of Medvedev that readers get from articles like Barry’s. Episodes like the clash at Yaroslavl are perhaps anticlimactic. Medvedev did not reveal any surprises or do any spectacular grandstanding. But he’s definitely fighting.