What Reset Button?

MOSCOW – The emergence of a Kremlin leader, President Dmitri Medvedev, without a KGB background, combined with the economic crisis, has inspired talk that when Barack Obama visits Moscow, America’s president will be seeing a country on the verge of a new political thaw, a revived perestroika . But pushing the “re-set button” on US-Russia relations may be harder than Obama and his team imagined.

Russian (or Soviet) leaders opt for perestroika or a thaw only when forced to do so by dire conditions that threaten the regime’s survival. An atmosphere of mortal fear, mutual suspicion, and hatred among the Communist elite was the catalyst for Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin thaw. For Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980’s, the catalyst for his perestroika was the USSR’s growing economic paralysis.

For both men, the goal of clinging to power was a top priority. Changing the system and easing their grip on power was a risky move that could undermine their authority. But the risks of inertia seemed to be even higher. In the end, having opted for change, both were forced to leave their posts prematurely, against their will.

As he revived centralized Kremlin control over Russian politics and public affairs, Vladimir Putin has been concerned primarily with minimizing challenges to state power, which he concentrated in his own hands. To this end, he stripped the political system of competition, emasculated state institutions, marginalized the opposition, and basically eliminated public participation. His power-building project was facilitated by high oil prices, but came at the cost of a steady deterioration in the quality of governance and abandonment of the goal of modernization.