Russia’s ‘unstoppable desire for change’


Russia’s future looks bleak without economic and political reform, notes Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University and recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics.

“And, without reform, there is little reason to be optimistic about Russia’s long-run growth trend, given its poor demographic profile, weak institutions and abject failure to diversify its economy, despite having an enormously talented and creative population,” he writes. “If the world continues to move toward a low-carbon future, Russia will confront an inevitable choice: launch economic and political reforms or face continuing marginalisation, with or without western sanctions.”

The resources that helped Russia recover after the 1998 default crisis are no longer readily available if at all and so coming out of this crisis will be harder, says analyst Sergey Shelin.

Russians must come to understand that the current crisis is one of “a new type,” albeit one that is still “far from that which was 20 years ago although potentially far more difficult to overcome (HT: Paul Goble).

Russia’s recent anti-corruption demonstrations this spring should not be viewed as a stand-alone activity. They are part of a much broader picture, says analyst Mikhail Fishman (right). The teenagers who took to the streets grew their worldview online. Their protest is, to a significant extent, a reaction against the ideological pressure delivered in schools and colleges. They are part of a backlash against the state agenda, a reaction that takes many different social forms — from feminism and solidarity during crisis to anti-corruption activism, he writes for The Moscow Times:

In March, after a terror attack in the St. Petersburg metro killed 14 people, the city was electrified with a spirit of solidarity Russia had never seen before. Taxis canceled fares for stranded passengers. Cafes provided free tea. Locals invited those in need into their homes. Once again, social networks emerged as a major tool of mutual assistance.

The change in Russians’ self-perception comes in different forms. Activists fight against discriminatory legislation. Historians form NGOs to defend their field from political abuse. Muscovites rose up against a massive rehousing program. In St. Petersburg, citizens united against transferring the city’s iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church.

“In today’s Russia, it is difficult to draw a line between people’s search for social identity and political action,” Fishman adds. “There is a simple explanation: Any social actions that people take — even superficially apolitical ones — go against state interests.”

The most hopeful thing about the anti-corruption protests is who these protesters were, says pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza.

“The vast majority of the people who went out onto the street were young people, representatives of the young generation, representatives of tomorrow’s Russia, the people who will shape Russia after Vladimir Putin, people who are now in their twenties and some in their teens, you know, university students, high-school kids—the ‘Putin generation, in fact,” he tells Newsweek. “These are people who were certainly raised, and in many cases were born, under the Putin regime. People who don’t remember anything else, who have no memory of anyone else being in power.”

For three decades, American presidents sought to encourage democratic and market reforms inside Russia and integrate Russia into the West, notes Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. This strategy was motivated by the belief – shared by Republicans and Democrats alike – that a more democratic Russia would serve U.S. security and economic interests, he writes for The Washington Post. That project is now over. Putin does not want to build democracy and has even become suspicious of free enterprise. He no longer desires to join the West, but instead sees Russia as a bulwark against American hegemony and Western liberal values, adds McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

For Putin and a small group of Russia’s elites this new Russian foreign policy — ideologically anti-Western, geopolitically assertive, unpredictable, impulsive, pugnacious, and sublimely cynical — has been a smashing success, notes analyst Vladimir Frolov. More importantly, it has redrawn the concept of political legitimacy for Russian rulers. Now foreign policy success and the pursuit of Russia’s international greatness are the satisfying sources of legitimacy — much more than higher incomes, better health care and better education for the people. European democracy is no longer Russia’s alternative path of development, eliminating an internal political threat to the regime, he writes for The Moscow Times. But….

The growing gap between Russia’s inflated foreign policy ambitions and its broad economic and technological vulnerabilities is finally forcing a rethink within the Russian foreign policy community. Two recent reports by leading establishment think tanks have called for a policy of restraint and consolidation to replace assertiveness and unpredictability. They also call for internal modernization, including in the political sphere.

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