Streetwise Professor

May 26, 2009

Imperial Hangups

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:03 pm

This article by Dmitri Trenin in the Moscow Times echoes several points familiar to SWP readers, and which have been the subject of some debate in the comments section over the last couple of days:

The Russians are right about increased competition in their neighborhood but wrong about its nature and its drivers. The name of the game is not dominance and allegiance but freedom and models of development. The new Eastern Europeans and nations of the South Caucasus are not a prize to be won or lost in a global geopolitical game. They decide for themselves who they want to align themselves with — the EU, Russia or perhaps some combination of the two.  

The choice is not a simple “switching of alliances.” For all the talk of a Brussels diktat, the six countries — just like the Central Europeans before them — feel much more comfortable dealing with a nonhegemonic EU than a heavy-handed Moscow. Europe may see the six nations as backward and requiring economic assistance, but it treats them as independent. Moscow, by contrast, unabashedly views the neighbors as its own “zone of interests” (or “privileged interests,” as President Dmitry Medvedev distinctively coined.) This creates apprehension in those countries that remember very well what is what like to spend decades under Moscow’s control. It is noteworthy that in the aftermath of the Georgia war last August, not a single Russian ally or integration partner followed Moscow in recognizing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. They all refused not out of any affection or sympathy for Georgia or President Mikheil Saakashvili. They were simply sending a Moscow a distinct message: We are independent states, not adjuncts of a former superpower.  

This is a nice restatement of the sugar-gall point.  And this is just so:

Ironically, Russia is likely to benefit from Europe’s cohesion and its neighbors’ success. Moscow’s obsession with the 19th-century notions of geopolitics is a drag on its own post-imperial adjustment. Only when it is fully divested of these hang-ups will it be able to find a fitting place and a useful role for itself in the globalized environment.  

In the long term, Russia will probably not follow its neighbors into the EU, although joining a pan-European economic area and a European-Atlantic security compact would make a lot of sense. Russia will stay as a separate unit, but it will recognize the EU not as its geopolitical rival, but as a regional leader and a rich source of modernization. The Kremlin will live to enjoy the proximity and learn to profit from the occasional friction. Finally, it will also learn the art of dealing with smaller neighbors through methods other than dominating, bullying or punishing them.

Obsession with 19th-century notions of geopolitics and “hangups” indeed.  Trenin is right that the Russian people, by and large, would benefit from a more cooperative relationship with its neighbors, one not predicated on a master-vassal mindset.  But, sadly, what’s good for Russia is not necessarily good for its elite, and there’s the rub.

In another article in MT, Vladimir Ryzhkof addresses other aspects of the atavistic, 19th-century autocratic mindset that characterizes Russia’s current rulers:

During all of these Putin and Medvedev years, the government has been methodically destroying its real enemies — freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, parliament, opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations.

It also thrust its way into Russians’ minds, forcing a pro-Kremlin and anti-Western ideology on them. This was necessary because the authoritarianism and the dismantling of the Constitution required a compelling ideological foundation. This was most vividly articulated during Putin’s speech immediately after the Beslan siege ended, when he referred to “enemies” who have encircled Russia and who are craving to seize parts of its territory and rich resources.  

One of the first attacks in this new ideological campaign was the revision of teaching manuals to correct passages in textbooks that had tarnished the country’s “glorious past.” Schoolchildren were told that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was an “effective manager” whose mass murders, forced hunger and state terror were “justified.”  

Medvedev’s latest move, on May 19, was the creation of a presidential commission “for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests.” This opens the door to deprive Russians the freedom to know the truth about their own history. Now, state bureaucrats will decide which interpretation of history should be considered “falsified” and which is “true.”  

Playing with history is frightfully familiar. Under Stalin, the regime’s mistakes and crimes were whitewashed or completely expunged from the public record.  
. . . .

Now, it seems that the Kremlin is determined to distort global affairs and rewrite history to fit the Kremlin’s paranoid worldview. It will be filled with enemies and Russophobes, plots and secret operations against Russia requiring that the new dictator mobilize all of his forces in the fight against internal and external enemies.

I know there are some who read SWP who think, Jack Nicholson-like, that “Russia can’t handle the truth,” because of its cultural fragility and division.  That it lacks the “cultural unity” and “morale” to resist a critical, non-hagiographic treatment of its past.  I hope this is wrong.  It would be very sad if it weren’t.

But there is indeed evidence of demoralization, apathy, and atomization, as this Russia Profile story about popular reaction to police corruption demonstrates:

When Major Denis Yevsyukov went on a shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket late last month, the political shock waves were so severe that President Dmitry Medvedev fired the head of Moscow’s police force. Now, a wide coalition of NGOs and liberal politicians is calling for widespread reform of the police. But public sympathy for their cause is tempered by equally ubiquitous cynicism that anything can actually be changed.

 . . . .

At a street meeting held last week in central Moscow to demand police reform, the participants were divided on how best to tackle this Herculean task. Many said that it was impossible to talk about reforming the police in a vacuum, as it is an integrated part of a whole system that needs reforming. “We need reform not just of the police but of the army and the courts,” said Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a veteran campaigner from the Moscow Helsinki Group. “The reason the police causes antagonism among the population is because it is closest to the people on an everyday basis. At the moment, the main task of the police is not to defend people from criminals, but to defend ‘important people’ from the masses.”

A sense that it would be impossible to change things leads many Russians to feel that their protest voices are as worthless in the case of police reform as elsewhere. The meeting last week was held in the large central Moscow square at Mayakovskaya, and despite thousands of commuters and passers-by walking past the demonstration and banners, many of whom undoubtedly shared the views of the demonstrators when it comes to the police in Russia, few people thought to join in and add their voices to the protest.

According to Sergei Smirnov, a youth activist, “everyone knows” that the police force in Russia is corrupt, that it doesn’t seek to prevent crime but instead looks for personal enrichment, and that it hassles opposition activists and plants drugs on them or frames them for other crimes. However, said Smirnov, a feeling of powerlessness means that people don’t feel they can change anything, and so they stay silent. “I met some people this morning and told them about this protest,” said Smirnov. “They said that they hated the police and would love to change the way that the police operates, but they didn’t believe that there was any point in coming along to a meeting. The main problem in Russia is apathy. But if people don’t display a desire to change things, then the authorities will feel that there is no need to make an effort, either.”

As the last sentence suggests, from the authorities’ perspective, apathy/atomization is a feature, not a bug. As a result, the authorities have every incentive to encourage it.

There was one somewhat more intriguing, and encouraging, development in today’s news.  It’s hard to know what to make of it, because Medvedev is quite cautious, and not always consistent.  What’s more, it is difficult to know how much power he really wields.  But it is interesting that Medvedev has publicly echoed Kudrin’s pessimism on the economy.  This is quite contrary to the Alfred E. Neuman “what, me worry?” message that the siloviki are pushing:

President  Dmitry Medvedev  said Russia’s economy will contract more than originally forecast this year and the government will run a budget deficit of at least 7 percent of gross domestic product.

“The global financial crisis is far from over,” Medvedev told government officials, including his predecessor  Vladimir Putin, in the Kremlin today. “In 2009, unfortunately, we expect a deeper contraction than our initial forecasts,” he said.

The economy of the world’s biggest energy exporter shrank an annual 9.5 percent in the first quarter, the worst contraction in 15 years as industrial production slumped and demand for exported commodities plunged because of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. It may shrink as much as 8 percent this year, Economy Minister  Elvira Nabiullina  said in an interview last week, a steeper decline than the ministry forecast in January.

Russia’s budget strategy from 2010 to 2012 will focus on targeted welfare spending, paring back the deficit as well as shifting to a “strict” spending regime, Medvedev said.

“This doesn’t automatically mean cuts, but for many areas, which are not priorities in the current conditions, this is something we will have to do,” he added.

‘Optimistic Number’

Russia’s first budget deficit in a decade will be “no less” than 7 percent of GDP this year, and even that is an “optimistic number,” Medvedev said.

It is indeed optimistic because the budget deficit forecast is based on a 2.2 percent contraction in 2009.  Even though oil prices are likely to be higher than the price assumed in the budget forecast, which will generate higher revenues, it is hard to believe that this will be sufficient to offset the budgetary impact of a much sharper economic contraction.  

But the interesting thing here is the implicit swipe at Putin.  The premier has yet to acknowledge fully the depth of the crisis.  Note that he was in the audience, but his reaction to Medvedev’s remarks is not recorded.  Very interesting.

Medvedev is very much a mixed bag.  He has been very, uhm, Russian in his approach to the near abroad, and the battle over the past.  He has, in some sense, seemed to have been trying to out-Putin Putin on such matters.  But on some economic issues,he seems to recognize that Putinism is a dead end.  I would not go so far as to call him “liberal”, as some have done.  I would just suggest that he is not as clueless about economic issues as Putin and the siloviki.  Damning with faint praise, to be sure, but progress of a fashion.

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  1. SWP wrote: “But the interesting thing here is the implicit swipe at Putin. The premier has yet to acknowledge fully the depth of the crisis. Note that he was in the audience, but his reaction to Medvedev’s remarks is not recorded. Very interesting.”

    Yes it was, as a matter of fact! It was in Tuesday’s Moscow Times. I can no longer access it there because I’m not a registered user. But I remember what it said. Medvedev was severely scolding the cabinet…..and while all the ministers were sitting up straight in their seats, with their eyes attentively on Medvedev as he lashed at them, the Prime Minister was instead sitting back in his chair..…with his head down…..expressionless. (In my mind as if to say: “I don’t care what he says”)

    Comment by Ray — May 27, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  2. OK, I found the link for the Tuesday MT story on Putin’s reaction to Medvedev’s remarks to the ministers.

    Here’s an exerpt from the article: “Putin, who preceded Medvedev as president, leaned back in his chair and looked down expressionlessly, as he often does during Medvedev’s speeches. The other ministers sat stiffly in front of their notepads as they listened.”

    Comment by Ray — May 27, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  3. From the SWP:

    “It is noteworthy that in the aftermath of the Georgia war last August, not a single Russian ally or integration partner followed Moscow in recognizing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. They all refused not out of any affection or sympathy for Georgia or President Mikheil Saakashvili. They were simply sending a Moscow a distinct message: We are independent states, not adjuncts of a former superpower.”


    For that matter, Georgia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, along some EU countries, that have rationally chosen to take a different position from the US, UK, Germany and France.

    The independence recognition given to Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia is problematical, as shown by the how majority of the global community remain opposed to such declarations.

    Russia would’ve been arguably better off not recognizing South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence. This perspective is offered while differing with the Andrei Zolotov stated (on the PBS aired Foreign Exchange) view that such recognition encourages secession in Russia. (If anything, the British recognition of Kosovo’s independence seems to stand a better chance of increasing secessionist desires in Scotland.) At present, some territories outside Russia show interest to become a part of it – whereas no republics in Russia are seeking independence.

    Russia isn’t as geopolitically strong as the combination of the US, UK, Germany and France. In comparison to the Kosovo independence drive, the Kremlin can’t expect to have as great a clout in wanting greater international support for the independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    Diplomatically, a better Russian PR move would’ve been to hold off on deciding whether to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It’s not like these two lands have much of a choice in terms of moving away from Russia. Russia could’ve chosen the consistency route on the disputed lands in question (Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia). Holding off on deciding whether to recognize South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence would’ve probably made the Georgians less antagonistic towards Russia.

    In the post-Soviet era, Russo-Georgian relations have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. (In addition to the Soviet period, Russo-Georgian relations weren’t so bad in pre-Soviet times.) With the right policy in place, this situation can change. The Kremlin’s decision to recognize South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence appears to run counter to this idea.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — June 3, 2009 @ 4:30 am

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