TRUTH & BEAUTY: Uncovering what Russia really thinks

By bne IntelliNews October 20, 2009

Eric Kraus in Moscow -

Western thinking as regards the political development of post-Soviet Russia has reliably proved to be self-serving almost to the point of absurdity. Thus, a new report by the pan-European think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), entitled "What Does Russia Think?", seems almost revolutionary in its attempt to understand current Russian political institutions and attitudes as the logical outgrowth of Russians' experience over the past two decades.

As the authors note, "Victors feel no curiosity." With the end of the Cold War, it was widely assumed that Russia would simply draw a line through its unique historical and cultural experience, behaving as a defeated power aspiring to join the Western alliance - that final, triumphant synthesis of the Marxist thesis and the Capitalist antithesis which was briefly destined to mark "The End of History."

This convenient view was based upon a fundamental misconception - the West had become so deeply enamoured of its own paradigm as to assume that its specific value system (liberal democracy, free markets, globalization, US military preponderance) was not only universal and uncontestable, but also self-evidently shared by the rest of mankind, Russia included. In this context, the ECFR report is deeply refreshing - an effort to understand not just what Russians should think, but what they do think.

The book is comprised of two sections - a relatively brief introductory essay by authors Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard and Andrew Wilson, offering a pragmatic explanation of the enduring popularity of the political system created by Vladimir Putin, and of the Russian people's somewhat jaded views of the West, followed by a series of 10 papers by Russian thinkers, not all of whom manage to escape the national propensity towards the enthusiastic splitting of semantic hairs. We shall thus concentrate on the introductory essay.

Sovereign democracy

The authors note that, far from being dead and buried, the struggle to redefine a political ideology for modern Russia has taken on a new vibrancy following the ideological stagnation of the late Yeltsin years. Discarding the caricatured vision retailed in the Western press of a Russian political debate confined to an unequal struggle between Kremlin apologists and pro-Western liberals, they note that the new Russian political regime is a reaction to the twin failures of Soviet communism, and of the anarchy of the late Yeltsin years with its attempt to transpose Western political and economic models to a country totally lacking in the institutions and historical experience from which these models arose.

The concept of "sovereign democracy" is presented as a reflection of Russia's quest not to join the West, but to free itself from the West - an attempt to define a specifically Russian ideology allowing Russia to position herself not so much in opposition to any block or great power, but rather in terms of her own vital interests. Western models will necessarily form a vital part of the final mix, however any attempt to impose them wholesale would prove hugely unpopular. Along these lines, while noting the existence of President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin camps, they acknowledge some ambiguity about whether Medvedev himself belongs to the "Medvedev camp," ie. any conflict involves the ambitions of their respective staffs, rather than of the men themselves.

Having abandoned any further claim to great power status, Russia's primary foreign policy goal is presented as being an attempt to counter the Americano-centric unipolar political model at any cost, seeking to establish its sphere of influence (or at least, to prevent others from establishing theirs) in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Unfortunately, given the ambient obsession with the triumphant West, the authors fail to give serious consideration to what is likely to be the main driver for Russian foreign policy over the next decade in an increasingly Sino-centric world, the Eastern policy, ie. the role of the Shanghai Cooperation organization as a major forum for regional cooperation and Russo-Chinese relations in general.

Drafted by political scientists rather than by economists, the ECFR report is somewhat weaker on financial issues. Those participants discussing the issue tend to attribute the Russian economic crisis to the collapse in commodity prices and/or the lack of economic diversification. While these issues are indeed significant for long-term economic development, they were largely irrelevant to the genesis of the crisis, essentially a function of Russia's growing integration with Western financial markets combined with a weak and fragmented domestic financial system. It was due to overwhelming dependency upon foreign capital flows in the absence of a properly functioning banking system that left the Russian economy dangerously exposed to exogenous crises. This dysfunctionality has not yet been properly addressed.

Furthermore, there is the assumption of "an inherent tension between the objectives of state-building and the objectives of economic development" - implying a somewhat controversial assumption that one were possible without the other. More fundamentally, the inherent superiority of the neo-liberal model over any statist system is taken for granted, this despite the available evidence which shows that, at least for emerging markets, the mixed model as applied by China et al has been by far the most successful of those now being promoted on the global ideological marketplace.

Eric Kraus is the author of the "Truth and Beauty" column

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