Putin has succeeded in several important areas for Russia but serious changes are essential

The Times
March 5, 2008

Mikhail Gorbachev

Russia has elected a new president. I voted, and I urged not only my friends and family but all citizens of Russia to go to the polls and cast their ballots – despite the fact that the result was predictable, even programmed.

The popularity of President Vladimir Putin, who backed Dmitri Medvedev and then agreed to serve as his prime minister, made the result a foregone conclusion. Many in our country were critical of this unique feature of the election. Voters were not given a real chance to compare the candidates’ proposals on how to deal with the problems facing the country. The field of candidates itself left much to be desired. And yet, people went to the polls and voted – another tribute to the Putin phenomenon.

But, however important the elections to the Duma and for the presidency have been in recent months, I am now thinking about what happens next.

We now have an opportunity to take advantage of the stability and confidence achieved in the past few years, and of the favourable international markets, to move decisively on the path of modernisation. This means much more than modernising our industry. We need to modernise governance, create an innovative economy, re-emphasise education and health and, as top priority, work to narrow the gap between rich and poor while fighting corruption and bureaucracy.

In a welcome move, both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev focused on those challenges during the final days of the campaign. I have no doubt that they will do their utmost. But their efforts alone will not be enough to succeed. At all levels – federal, regional and even local – we need big personnel changes. I am not calling for a “kick the bastards out” campaign. We need to educate the officials in new ways of solving new problems; even more, we need to open the way to the young. Unless this is done, many of the promises made to the people will not be kept, and no PR campaign will be able to hide that fact.

We know from other countries’ experiences that problems of such magnitude can only be solved in an environment of real democracy, in a civil society where the government is accountable to the people, and the people are not afraid to take the initiative.

Some would object to this, saying that we cannot afford to “loosen the reins”, that what Russia needs is not more democratic experiments but a “firm hand”. But strong authority without real support from the people can be impotent. Mr Putin got support because he correctly identified what people wanted – restoring stability and rebuilding the Russian state. We are now facing even more daunting, historic tasks, and to accomplish them we need a new level of feedback between the State and society.

But to have an effective system of governance, we must reform our electoral system. Not just by tinkering with it, but by making serious changes in the mechanisms of presidential and parliamentary elections and in the election of governors.

As the first priority, I suggest a return to a mixed system of parliamentary elections, so people may vote both for “party lists” – as they do now – and for individual candidates. People must be sure that their chosen deputy will work for them. After December’s Duma elections, 113 leading candidates from the lists of the winning parties gave up their seats to little-known, lower-placed surrogates. One-hundred and thirteen – that’s a quarter of those elected! Voters deserve more respect.

The threshold for a party’s entry into the state Duma should be lowered from 7 per cent of the vote to 5 per cent, where it had been during the 2003 elections, before the legislation was changed in 2006. The governors must again be elected in a popular vote, instead of the president’s choice being approved by regional legislatures.

The election campaign included some discussion of Russia’s foreign policy. It is now recognised that in recent years Russia has in large part rebuilt its international standing. With that comes even more responsibility – but also a need to reconsider our positions on some issues as well as our foreign policy style.

Russia’s partners, too, need to do more to achieve mutual understanding. Some of them, instead of objective analysis, insist on blaming Russia for problems real and imagined. And some Western media have become obsessed with anti-Russian stereotypes and wholesale criticism of our country.

To this I respond: our people are more democratic than you think, despite the vicissitudes of Russia’s history. This nation endured 250 years of Mongol domination, followed by serfdom under the tsars and decades of life without freedom under the communists. But our people can learn from their past. They will make the right choices – what to accept and what to reject. This will take time, but Russia has only one future – democracy.

Mikhail Gorbachev was President of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990