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Monday, June 09, 2008

Bovt on Medvedev and Russia's Future

Georgy Bovt, writing in the Moscow Times:

Two years ago, I met with a high-ranking Kremlin official who confidently asserted, "The next president will surely become more of a moralist than former President Vladimir Putin, who is not suited to that style of behavior." Now, Dmitry Medvedev has become president, but he has yet to mention the issue of morals or ethics in society. In fact, it is hard to picture Medvedev speaking with enthusiasm on such topics, arguing over an ethical issue or driving home a convincing point on morality.

Furthermore, his professional record does little to support the claim that he will become a president committed to morality. A lawyer by profession, he is accustomed to responding to the letter of the law, and not the underlying moral framework. A career bureaucrat, his logic follows a dry pattern of reasoning divorced from emotion. His manner and style are more suited to conducting a routine meeting of bureaucrats than to addressing mass meetings and inspiring his listeners to uphold high standards of integrity and fairness.

Meanwhile, there is a widespread feeling that not all is well with the country -- particularly as far as morality is concerned. A VTsIOM survey conducted last year revealed that a majority of Russians feel the moral and ethical climate in society has worsened over the last 10 to 15 years. Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed that Russians had become more cynical, while over 60 percent felt that they displayed less honesty, goodwill, sincerity, generosity and mutual trust than before.

As a result, the issue of morality is being addressed more frequently in public forums. This stems in part from the fact that there is little to discuss about the country's political system because it is entirely predictable and held under tight Kremlin control. Also, people understand that Russia has lost its moral foundation. We see this not only in national survey results, but also in the enormous level of corruption permeating every level of society. We also see a decline in the educational system over the last 15 years and an increase in the level of rudeness we encounter from others in everyday life, in the beer cans and liquor bottles littering our parks and public squares, in the aggressive and rude driving habits of motorists, and in countless other ways.

Public initiatives to address the morality problem appear sporadically. For example, to combat the alarming rise in drug addiction, the Interior Ministry proposes testing students for drug use. The Public Chamber is discussing the possibility of chemically castrating pedophiles to address the 26-fold increase over the last five years in sex crimes committed against children across the country. In addition, Lyudmila Verbitskaya, president of St. Petersburg University and a friend of Vladimir Putin's family, proposes creating a commission on morality.

But most of these initiatives -- and especially those proposing controls over the media and the Internet -- would place the burden of defending morality on the state. According to polls, over 70 percent of Russians believe that the state should play the leading role in maintaining morals and ethical standards. But what about churches? And the media? And what about the members of society itself, especially the active members of nongovernmental organizations who could apply their creative talents to make their country cleaner, kinder, more honest and generous?

Apparently, very few people believe that these organizations hold responsibility for society's moral health. This means that the situation will only worsen in the near future, as neither Putin nor Medvedev put morality and ethics high on their political agendas.

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