MOSCOW — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to fire Moscow’s long-entrenched mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is the most decisive move of his presidency. Is it really part of his drive to modernize Russia, or part of an emerging power play with Moscow’s real strong man, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?

Anatoly Chubais, the father of Russian privatization in the 1990s and the current head of the country’s nano-technology conglomerate RosNano, recently admitted that the prospects for political modernization in Russia are dim.

“Today,” he said, “no demand for it exists. Such demand requires a social group to promote it.”

This gloomy view might be explained by the interest Chubais has in stopping the West from challenging Russia’s rulers for violating human rights and curtailing freedom. To avoid an even worse alternative, the United States and Europe should support the Putin-Medvedev tandem, in the hope that they provide a stable and secure environment for investment. Chubais, a one-time reformer, is totally complicit in the regime’s policies. Still, he is telling the truth.

Russia’s chief modernizer and protege of Medvedev, Igor Yurgens of the Institute of Contemporary Development, thinks in much the same way. Indeed, he suggests that Russians “are not citizens, but rather some sort of tribe,” and that the archaic character of Russian society is not likely to change before 2050.

Of course, Russian politicians are always fond of assigning a due date for change: Nikita Khrushchev once memorably promised to build communism in 20 years. But what matters here is a common perception that Russians are not ready to assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Once again, all the formulas for Western-type democracy depend on the will of an enlightened and benevolent czar.

Medvedev is currently seeking to perform this role. Once he brings about truly modernizing reforms, people will supposedly follow willingly, forgetting centuries of serfdom, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the political chaos and economic free fall of the 1990s, and the decade of Putin’s managed democracy. But neither Khrushchev, nor Mikhail Gorbachev, nor Boris Yeltsin were able to uproot Russia’s stubborn culture of indifference and subordination, precisely because they insisted on top-down change and expected that the Russian people would simply acquiesce en masse.

Will Medvedev succeed where all others have failed?

The scandal over Mayor Luzhkov’s incompetence in handling this summer’s deadly heat wave and wild fires is being portrayed as a split between the “modernizing” Medvedev and the “old guard” Putin. The Kremlin recently ran on its TV channels documentaries savaging Luzhkov, and Medvedev has indicated that it’s high time for the mayor to retire.

Putin, on the other hand, has not been publicly critical of Luzhkov. After all, it was under his (unlikely disinterested) supervision that the mayor turned Moscow into a private fiefdom. With a city budget of almost $50 billion, Luzhkov encouraged architectural vandalism, overlooked giant traffic jams, and saw his wife become the richest woman in Russia through her Moscow construction projects. To all of this, Putin never once said “boo.”

Most analysts suggest that this visible disagreement between Putin and Medvedev over Luzhkov’s fate is a sign of a looming contest for the presidency in 2012. Luzhkov, after all, had been vocally critical of Medvedev, while praising Putin — allegedly an attempt to drive a wedge between the two.

So, in this scenario, unmasking Luzhkov as corrupt and incompetent, and using him as a scapegoat for Russia’s systemic inefficiency, is intended as a way for Medvedev to sway public opinion behind him and make Putin appear out of touch. The problem, though, is that Medvedev, like Luzhkov, was also mostly invisible during the summer’s disastrous heat wave, whereas Putin was everywhere, even piloting firefighting airplanes over burning forests.

Since Putin did not formally take sides over what would happen to Luzhkov, had Medvedev’s campaign against Moscow’s former mayor failed, the president would have found himself without a job in 2012. He would be forced to join Russia’s pathetic opposition, which bears part of the blame for the country’s toxic political culture.

The opposition — led by Boris Nemtsov, the former leader of the now-defunct Union of Right Forces, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, chess master Garry Kasparov and writer Edward Limonov — has no coherent message with which to win support or provide a credible alternative to the country’s current leadership. The power elite fight among themselves, because there is no one else to fight with.

Now with Medvedev showing what appears to be a backbone, the presidential election campaign is officially on the way. The truth is, Russian elections won’t depend on who has been more displeased with Luzhkov. Russians who are dissatisfied with the system still have a limited choice: either support marginal, weak and discredited oppositional candidates or, hoping for modernization from the top, side with the very system they oppose.

There is nothing new in the mistrust of the masses expressed by people like Chubais or Yurgens, or in Medvedev’s putative desire to impose modernization from the top. (Khrushchev’s “Thaw” and Gorbachev’s Perestroika happened the same way.) What is new, in Russia at least, is the emergence of organized resistance to this failed paradigm.

Beyond the opposition, numerous nonpolitical public initiatives have sprung up in the last several years to protest specific government policies — leading inevitably to confrontation with the existing political order. To be sure, such initiatives have not become substantial, and the political opposition is constantly trying to appropriate them to make their own case more credible.

It is these people — motorists, volunteer ecologists and charitable-campaign organizers — rather than Russia’s politicians who represent the country’s best hope for modernization.

Nina Khrushcheva, author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics,” teaches international affairs at The New School and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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