As for the post-Soviet Russia on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, it does not appear to be in good shape either. Anders Äslund, a Swedish economist formerly influential among the Russia’s “liberal reformers”, noted in late 2009: “The country’s economic performance has plummeted to such a dismal level that one must ask whether it is entitled to have any say at all on the global economy…”. Seeing Russia’s right to have a say on the global economy called into question is a deplorable but quite a predictable outcome. The general rule from which Russia should not expect to be exempt is that there is a strong positive correlation between a country’s geopolitical status and the ability of its economy to convert academic research and development into innovative technologies, processes and products. Throughout the two decades of Russia’s liberal “reforms”, we hardly ever heard that putting the country on track towards self-sustained economic growth and sustainable economic development without falling into dependence on export of hydrocarbons and other raw materials would take serious measures to reinvigorate Russia’s nascent research and development capabilities and industrial capacity.
Tangible economic progress in Russia will remain illusory unless the country’s civil society shakes off the mental stereotypes which help to reproduce and prop up the institutions and practices detrimental to the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the nation. For any rational social order to function in a sustainable way, the sense of dignity must emerge as a part of the overall package, while the lack of self-respect in the ranks of Russia’s elite routinely causes it to lure overseas investors at countless and useless grotesque forums which evidently fail to attract considerable investments into the country or to improve its modernization perspectives. Isolated success stories, if any, should not blur a wider picture: Russia’s economy is increasingly shedding its industrial potential and falling apart, while the political class’s inability to generate creative ideas and the obsolescence of the modernization “model” offered by the country’s new “elite” on the eve of the demise of the USSR seem to make the situation hopeless (the recent crash of the vintage Tupolev-134 aircraft in Russia put the final dot in the tragic history of the Russian “liberal reforms”).
Staking a claim for admission to the multipolar world-system under formation, Russia is confronted with at least two challenges such that failure to repel will reduce the country to a regional player if not make it crumble.
First, Russia’s ruling class should demonstrate unequivocal determination to establish the country as an independent center of “gravity” and strategic decision-making in international politics prepared to safeguard national interests using whatever means necessary. This happens to be the policy adopted and successfully implemented by China, and this is the reason why the West increasingly has to be taking Beijing’s position – backed by the impressive Chinese economic resources – into account.
Secondly, Russia’s independence in global economy and politics may only be attained provided that the country comes back to the notion of the political autonomy of the state stewardship in pivotal areas of its domestic development (the concept of a “visionary state”). In Russia, the state should, along with taking responsibility for strategic vision of the country’s future, regain the general function of socioeconomic management (for example, the state should be independent enough to shape the relations between the resource-extracting and manufacturing sectors of the Russian economy). Abstract criticism of state capitalism irrespective of the role which must be credited to the phenomenon in the whole context of the emergence of the XX century economic system should not be allowed to prevent Russia from conceptually answering the key question: what can Russia do to rebuild within a historically “compressed” period of time a viable industrialized and knowledge-intensive economy?
Sadly, the intellectual circles in several countries engaged in strategic partnerships with Russia increasingly believe in the Russian elite’s, especially its liberal faction’s, dependence on the West, as well as in this grouping’s alarmist perception of the “vertical” economic rise of China. In India, for example, the widely held view is that the post-Soviet Russia is intellectually and morally unprepared to embark on profound socioeconomic transformations but ready to minimize its ambitions in the international system.
Russian foreign policy analyst A. Kortunov presumes that the country’s ruling class would be content to see Russia become an international player with clout comparable, for instance, to that of France under N. Sarkozy. Tolerating Russian invectives, Washington lightheartedly disregards Moscow’s position in international affairs and essentially suggests that Russia accept the “limited sovereignty” concept formerly elaborated by French premier and Sarkozy’s one-time sponsor Édouard Balladur. It makes no practical sense to slam the Russian elite over its narrow intellectual horizons and the lack of patriotism, at least considering that the deepening economic crisis echoes within the Russian society with divisions which may have repercussions for the 2011 and 2012 elections (unrest like that which recently erupted in Egypt can easily be provoked if the Russian authorities attempt to manipulate the ballot count).
Russia, therefore, faces a risk of being dropped from the currently rewritten international politics equation. The hopes among a part of the Russian “elite” that Washington would allow Moscow to become its junior partner are illusory as the role is beyond means for a country whose industrial potential this very elite has kept undercutting over the past couple of decades. As a result, Russia’s delayed socioeconomic crisis is deepening, with the majority of the population being aware of the fact and gradually becoming politically impatient.
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The disintegration of the Soviet Union became a geopolitical mousetrap for the West. Obsessed with the fight against the remnants of communism, Washington and its allies overlooked the fresh trends in the global politics which at the moment define the regrouping of forces in the international system:
1. The strengthening and growing international influence of China. Continental powers (China, India, Brazil) are step by step overshadowing the erstwhile great marine powers (Great Britain, the US) as the genuine history-makers. At the moment Russia is not in the game, and the country’s chances to join it depend on Moscow’s ability to launch fundamental and essentially “non-liberal” socioeconomic reforms. Notably, the global historical evolution precludes any form of the US control over China. If there is a measure of truth in the view held by some US conservatives that Washington’s shortsighted policies created a powerful and “inscrutable” China, it should also be true that the economic and geopolitical ascension of the “Dragon” is largely owed to the US Administration’s over-reliance on expertise and advice of the Russophobe “political scientists” originating from the former socialist states of Eastern Europe.
2. The formation of a tightly knit community of “the new regional leaders” with strong political, economic, and cultural interconnections. The advent in the late 1980s of “new influentials” – Brazil, Argentine, Venezuela, South Africa, Egypt, and later Indonesia and Mexico – was a process that came to a brief halt due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc but is currently reacquiring momentum. Members of the community, now broadened to incorporate the assertive Turkey, tend to avoid international and regional conflicts but boldly defend their interests whenever those are put in jeopardy.
3. Global crisis and regional conflicts alike boost the self-determination of developing countries which altogether account for the lion’s share of the population and territorial space of the humankind. In the early 1980s, the process was described by Soviet scholars as the transformation of subordinate and exploited countries into independent players in global politics (according to Acad. Ye. Primakov, transformation from the objects to the subjects) . As of today, the respective societies are entering the self-awareness phase vividly illustrated by the 2011 Arab revolutions. In a foreseeable future, the developing countries will be through with delineating their long-term interests and will call for an inclusive “global concert” with equal rights and no privileges for all nations involved.
At the point, the US and the West as a whole will have to decide between accepting the role of the first among the equals or clinging to power based on yesterday’s approaches and accordingly taking considerable risks.
World-renowned historian and economist Charles Kindleberger wrote in the mid-1990s: “I happen not to be a prophet…, but I predict muddle. Many problems will be dealt with one at a time, others will persist and produce conflicts that linger and mildly poison international economic and political relations. … There will be some regionalism, some cooperation among great powers, some persistent low-level conflict. … In due course a country will emerge from the muddle for a time as the primary economic power. The United States again? Japan? Germany? the European Community as a whole? Perhaps a dark horse like Australia or Brazil or China? Who knows? Not I.” 
Russia’s absence from the above list of potential leaders does not come as a surprise – with elites and ideas not refreshed since the 1990s, the country is doomed to background existence. The last ray of hope is that the self-preservation instinct in the “elite” would urge a part of it to switch from meaningless slogans and hollow speeches to proactive attempts to improve the living conditions of Russia’s people. Otherwise, the mousetrap will click and in comparison even the Tahrir Square will look like an innocent political show.
1. Ye.M. Primakov. Vostok Posle Krakha Colonial’noi Systemy. ( The East in the Wake of the Crash of the Colonial System.) Moscow, 1982.
2. Ch. P. Kindleberger. World Economic Primacy, 1500-1990. Oxford, 1996, p. 228.
Source: Strategic Culture Foundation