Getting Russia Right

8 December 2007

Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, presented his recently published book Getting Russia right, which, he said, attempts to give a more holistic view on Russia than that put forward by the usual political pundits. Russia is not “owned” by President Vladimir Putin and the country reaches further than the walls and towers of the Kremlin.

While most books concentrate on Russia’s political regime, the country is much more than just “hard politics”. Getting Russia right attempts to describe this by focusing on all the factors which are transforming the country, from social-economic to cultural developments.

Much has changed since the glasnost and perestroika era, and labelling Russia as the “Soviet Union 2.0” is not appropriate, said Mr Trenin. Capitalism and property rights are embedded in the economy, and globalisation and Western culture have found their way into Russian society. These are the processes that will determine Russia’s future and cannot be stopped by any political force, as socio-economic developments have a far greater influence on the level of democracy than political parties.

Every year, the number of people earning more than US$350 a month increases by five million, and this is the group that will eventually own the country’s political process. Mr Trenin said this would act as a counterbalance to the Kremlin’s tendency to be more authoritarian and to centralise power, to reshuffle Russia’s political landscape, and have tremendous implications for domestic and foreign political policies.

Mr Trenin emphasised that Russia is not a failed democracy: contemporary Russia is no less democratic than it was in the 1990s, although there may have been more freedom a decade ago. This is not the paradox it may seem, he said, as there is a clear distinction between freedom and democracy: the former relates to personal rights, the latter to political rights. However, Russia still has a long way to go towards genuine democracy.

While Russian society is becoming more Westernised, the Kremlin is becoming more assertive in its dealings towards the West, which it views as competing for power in ‘its’ neighbourhood and threatening its national interests. Despite this, Russia still sees its Western neighbours as a model of how it would like to develop.

Matt Kaminsky, of the Wall Street Journal Europe, criticised some aspects of the Kremlin’s behaviour and performance. First of all, the growing authoritarianism could create greater instability once President Putin’s term of office ends, as the frequent attacks on the opposition have revealed how weak the regime really is.

Secondly, the number of people infected with HIV is increasing dramatically and this, combined with declining health services, is having a negative impact on the country’s demography.

Finally, Russia’s seemingly strong economy is only sustained by the high oil prices on the world market, so it is questionable whether the country can retain its stability if oil prices fall.

Dov Lynch, Senior Advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General in Vienna, described the significant political and economic reforms that have taken place in Russia over the last decade, making the country unrecognisable from ten years ago.

The country has undoubtedly embarked on the road to capitalism, and this isthe “beacon to which the Russian ship is heading”, he said, suggesting that political scholars should concentrate on examining the economic developments and long-term political and social changes this will bring.

If the West wants to develop fruitful cooperation with Russia, Mr Lynch argued, it should begin by analysing Russia’s interests, which are predominantly economic. Mutually beneficial trade agreements can form a good starting point for negotiations between Russia and the West, and will deliver better results than a dialogue on values, so the West should rethink its strategy towards Russia, shifting its focus from values to mutual economic interests.

Mr Lynch explained that Russians take a rather reluctant stance towards Western democratic ideals, as these remind them of the troublesome Nineties, when Russia attempted to put these into practice. The Russian population believe that this made the country the West’s “weak cousin”, when it had to beg for financial support, was marginalised from the political mainstream and lacked a voice.

Moreover, much to its disappointment at the time, Russia was not able to integrate into Western structures and organisations. As a result, Russians believe that democracy weakened Russia and was detrimental to its development.

Robert Kagan, Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, said Mr Trenin’s realistic insights had provoked considerable public reaction, not least because he had argued that Russia was not seeking to integrate into the West; instead preferring to follow its own path of using foreign policy stemming from a position of strength.

However, Mr Kagan questioned Mr Trenin’s assertion that capitalism automatically creates a strong civil society, which then demands more democratic reforms. History has shown that this paradigm does not apply to every country or region.

Mr Kagan agreed that the West should accept Russia as it appears today and should concentrate on developing economic cooperation. However, as the West continues to view Russia as an authoritarian power, this will inevitably impact on the relationship.