For one thing, his comment was spun to mean that he was rejecting liberalism in the Russian sense, which is often equated with pro-democracy sentiment. For example, political activists Liliya Shevtsova and David Kramer use it to argue against Medvedev’s ‘liberal’ credentials: “(O)bservers, including some in the U.S. government, offered gushing praise of Medvedev, attributing great significance to his pronouncements on modernization and anti-corruption. More recently, Medvedev set his admirers straight. ‘In my views, I've never been a liberal,’ he announced after accepting an offer to lead the United Russia party, essentially admitting that he had been lying not only to his Western interlocutors, but to his citizens as well. Medvedev became a convenient excuse for some who wanted to reconcile or do business with the Kremlin. In reality, his hollow rhetoric legitimized the reality of Russian authoritarianism and helped the Russian political elite and business oligarchs interact with the West” (Lilia Shevtsova and David J. Kramer, “Medvedev the Phony,” ForeignPolicy.com, 7 May 2012, www.foreignpolicy.com).
This is a typical and, in some ways,a perculiarly American political ‘gotcha’ gimmick. Words are taken out of context, blown up into something they are not, and then the strawman is expertly ripped apart. The implication that Shevtsova and Kramer foster is that this means Medvedev supports authoritarianism and nationalism, eschewing all consideration of policy. Not so.
What does Medvedev mean when he calls himself a conservative? First to understand this, differences between the American and Russian meanings of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’. For Americans, conservatism means liberal economics in the classical sense: free markets, entrepreneurship, and very limited government interference in the economy.
When it comes to economics, this distinction in Russia is understood only among elites. Similarly, in the U.S. and the West, this distinction is known among the college educated, for the most part. The closeness of their respective positions explains why we often find libertarians – many of whom reject any government economic role – allied with American conservatives and Republicans.
Medvedev’s comment also needs to be seen in the context of his policy priorities in his new position as prime minister. In that post his responsibility will be almost entirely confined to economic, financial and social issues like education and welfare. Serious political analysts have understood this. Russian liberal Tatyana Stoyanova notes the following about Medvedev’s remarks: “Medvedev outlines his priorities more clearly as a free marketer. Notably, he came out for restricting the takeover of private companies by state companies and for the latter to sell non-specialized assets; for administrative and interbudgetary decentralization; against higher taxes; and for the optimization of budget expenditures, further liberalization of criminal legislation under economic articles, and the development of competitive markets” (Tatyana Stoyanova, “Dmitrii Medvedev: Slabyi Prezident, Sil’nyi Prem’er,” Politkom.ru, 2 May 2012).
As I have written elsewhere, Medvedev clearly staked out his position as a free market conservative many years ago. In an early interview during his presidential campaign in 2008 Medvedev signaled his adherence to Western conservative values. He supported what he called the modern West’s “new model” developed by the “new Right,” mentioned Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl by name.
Medvedev was even somewhat Reaganesque when he described the function of the state in fairly limited terms: “The task of authorities is, in a sophisticated way, to regulate social processes, create the conditions for development of business and civic activeness, resolve conflicts that arise, and arrange for the country’s defense and security.”
Specifically, Medvedev argued that the Russian state’s intervention in the economy should not grow and the presence of state corporations, a core economic instrument under Putin, should be temporary (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 228-259 and Nikolai Svanidze and Marina Svanidze, Medvedev (St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2008), Medvedev, pp. 25 and 184-89).
Of course, the trick is moving from a once totalitarianistically centralized economy to the free market without economic disturbances. Russia has already gone through a great depression, a phony privatization in the 1990s along with mass theft of state property during that decade, and massive corruption throughout the last two decades where traditionally, conservativism often meant more colloquially resistance to change and continued strong state paternalism in terms of free education, medical care, and housing.
Indeed, for political reasons, Medvedev tried to marry a less robust social paternalism with laissez faire economics in his statement. Nevertheless, both Medvedev and Putin now support denationalization of a large portion of Russia’s state economic sector. Therefore, Putin’s first decree issued after his inauguration ordered Medvedev’s government to draft new privatization plans for 2011-2013 and 2014-2016 “which envisage completion the state’s exit from the capital of ‘non-fuel’ sector companies that are not regarded as natural monopolies or organizations of the defense industry complex by 2016” (“Podpisan Ukaz o dolgosrochnoi gosudarstvennoi ekonomicheskoi politike,”Kremlin.ru, 7 May 2012). This demonstrates that a move to more conservative economic principles is finally coming.
Another tenet of Russian conservatism that corresponds with the American conservative canon is a strong defense. Indeed, Medvedev clashed with former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin on the issue of increased defense spending, which Kudrin a fiscal conservative, but a political liberal, opposed. In other words, when Medvedev called himself a conservative he was also talking about a strong support for Russia’s defense industry and a foreign policy that protects Russian interests. Today’s Russian liberals are inclined to sharply reduce defense spending and stake out a foreign policy more in line with American interests, which in their view would correspond with Russian interests more than in the Russian conservative point of view. This Russian divide is consistent with the American divide in which conservatives are seen as being ‘stronger on defense’ than American liberals.
Another tenet where American and Russian conservatism generally see eye-to-eye regards social issues such as abortion, gay rights and marriage. Here Medvedev is also a conservative and has condemned, for example, attacks on the Russian orthodoz Church’s conservatism on these issues coming from Russian liberals as, for example, with the recent ‘Pussy Riot’ demonstration on the altar of central Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior.
We can argue about whether Medvedev has been able to implement much of his agenda, including his conservative one. We can also argue about the extent to which Putin and Medvedev share a common vision and have been on the same page when it comes to Medvedev’s four years of liberalization and some re-democratization. What we should not be about, if we are talking about analysis, is distorting either the record or the statements of these two politicians for political reasons.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program