Medvedev seeks inspiration from reform Tsar

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President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday sought to portray himself as a modern successor to reforming Tsar Alexander II as Russia marked 150 years since his historic decree to emancipate the serfs.

Medvedev played up the links between his own modernisation drive and the liberal reforms of Alexander as he opened a conference in the former imperial capital Saint Petersburg on "great reforms and the modernisation of Russia."

Alexander II's March 3, 1861 decree to end centuries of feudal ownership of peasants by landlords was accompanied by other major reforms like the creation of elected local councils and improvements in the legal system.

"Today we are trying to develop our incomplete democratic institutions, we are trying to change our economy and change our political system," Medvedev told an audience inside the imperial-era Mariinsky Palace.

"In essence we are continuing a political course that was set 150 years ago. Freedom cannot be put off for another day," said Medvedev.

Medvedev has embarked on an urgent drive of modernisation to move the economy away from its dependence on energy exports to an innovation-based model, warning Russia faces an impasse if change is not made.

Moving to distance himself from the legacy of the Soviet Union, Medvedev said Alexander's realistic reforms compared favourably with the ambitions of the Soviet Union or the hard line of his predecessor Nicholas I.

"This was not the Soviet experiment but a project of normal, humane development, initiated by Alexander II," Medvedev said.

"From the historic point of view, it was he who was proved right. Not Nicholas I, not Stalin," Medvedev said.

He later put flowers at the grave of Alexander II in the cathedral of the Peter and Paul fortress in Saint Petersburg.

His comments marked a new stage in official recognition for the achievements of the Romanov dynasty which was ousted in the 1917 Russian Revolution but has gradually been rehabilitated under Russia's modern rulers.

To mark Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday, which coincidentally fell the day earlier, Medvedev handed the last Soviet leader a book of essays by reform-minded imperial minister Count Sergei Witte.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has said that Russia was going through a "historic moment" which would determine within the next 5-10 years whether the country could "kick the habit" of oil and gas dependence.

A top official from the United Russia party earlier made the startling admission that 150 years after the historic decree, Russia had yet to completely rid itself of the mentality of serfdom.

"After 150 years, this sensation has not gone away and the feeling of serfdom remains in much of our consciousness," said the deputy head of the ruling council of United Russia, Yury Shuvalov.

"Even when we discuss questions important for society we get scared of taking decisions because this feeling of serfdom sits deep inside us," he added, quoted by the Interfax news agency.

Alexander II's life also provides a warning for modern day Russian reformers.

Despised by conservatives for his reforms but scorned by liberals for not going far enough, Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881 by left-wing revolutionaries.

Many historians also believe creation of an urban working class from the emancipation and loosening of political controls by Alexander were a direct cause of the Russian Revolution that ended imperial rule.

© 2011 AFP

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