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Thu. February 02, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Dr. Lilia Shevtsova
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International Affairs Forum: You state in your book that post-Communist Russia has evolved into an 'imitation democracy', using the image of democratic institutions to mask a regime that resembles bureaucratic authoritarianism found in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Do you think the West has made missteps in dealing with 'new' Russia that would have made a difference? Dr. Lilia Shevtsova: The West has never been a crucial factor in Russia's transformation. Unlike transformations in Hungary, Slovenia and other post-communist states in Central and Eastern Europe where the West has been a decisive factor in their transition, external factors have been less significant in Russia. But still, in 1991 and 1993 the West could have made a difference. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West helped Russia sort out the nuclear legacy of the Soviet Union. But the West also missed the chance to advise Yeltsin and his government, including liberal technocrats, to put an emphasis on the political institutions and rules of the game. At that time, the Russian government and the Russian elite were dreaming to join the West and Western influence could have become an internal driver for Russia's transformation. Western leaders could have been more instrumental in helping a democratic Russia if they had advised Yeltsin to organize a new election, adopt a democratic constitution, and build a new state based on the rule of law, and then move gradually toward privatization, premising it on the development of new institutions. Instead, the West and U.S. government supported the so-called Washington Consensus – that is, an emphasis on macro economic stabilization and privatization without independent institutions. This was definitely a mistake as the West involuntarily supported the emergence of oligarchic capitalism in Russia. Then in 1993, the West supported Yeltsin's decision to shell the parliament. True, the parliament became the focus of a national populist opposition. Destroying it by force, however, with the spilling of blood, meant the end of any hope of governance by national consensus and a return to fist-fighting to resolve conflicts. After destroying the parliament, Yeltsin adopted a constitution of the hyper-presidency that became the framework of the future authoritarian regime. No wonder the resultant system in Russia came to be associated in the Russian popular imagination with Western influence and gave rise to the mistrust of the West. Thus, in the end, the West failed to contribute effectively to Russia's transformation. On the contrary, at some points its influence was hardly positive. Currently, there is only a minimal possibility that the West can influence a Russia that has acquired its own logic of development. Yet even now, the West may still be able to influence Russia by practicing what it preaches, by observing its own ideals, by enhancing the attractiveness of the liberal alternatives for Russia. Western leaders could be more insistent in reminding the Russian elite about the principles it had promised to observe when Russia joined the Western institutions like the G-8 and the Council of Europe. Unfortunately, Western leaders often choose to play the role of the Kremlin's advocates, preferring to have a 'stable' Russia even at the expense of democracy. IA-Forum: What is the impact, and possible impact, of Russia's reliance on energy as a tent pole for its economy? Dr. Shevtsova: There are several consequences of Russia's reliance on energy. First, the growing assertiveness, and even aggressiveness in Russia's foreign policy. With current high oil prices and demand for Russian gas in Europe, energy can be used for leverage as an instrument for political clout. Second, Russia's reliance on energy and the benevolent oil price does not push the Russian political elite into advancing reforms – why think about reform while sitting by a gas or oil tap and doing nothing but accumulating petrodollars in the bank? Evidently, when there is this amazing oil price, in the view of the elite, nothing needs to be reformed. Oil money is used to feed and stabilize the economy, and to keep the society happy. Both of these consequences from dependence on energy have become important obstacles in the path of Russia's transformation and modernization. So far, oil and gas accounts for 63.3 percent of the Russian exports, and the export of Russia's high technology is an amazingly low 0.3 percent. Drawing from history, energy countries can very easily turn into a Petro-State, especially if they fail to build independent institutions before the energy bonanza starts. Russia has all the key features of the Petro-State including the emergence of an idle upper class – the class of rentier - that lives on dividends from the sale of natural resources. Russia also has systemic corruption, domination of large monopolies controlled by the bureaucracy, and a fusion between power and business has emerged. The problem with the Petro-State is how to sustain current growth and stability. There have already been two periods in Russian history where, after oil prices plunged, there were disastrous consequences to the Russian economy. In 1986 there was a 6-fold decrease in the world oil price that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union and in 1998, a twofold collapse of oil prices brought a collapse of the Russian economy. True, Russia is a very specific Petro-State. We are dealing with something totally new – a Nuclear Petro-State that is a totally new challenge for Russia itself and for the world. IA-Forum: What is the West's biggest misconception about the Putin Presidency and Russia in general? Dr. Shevtsova: On the first Western myth regarding Russia - today, Time magazine proclaimed Putin Man of the Year and I just read a piece by Robert D. Blackwell who suggests good relations with the Kremlin, which means forget about Russian democracy for the sake of pursuing good cooperation in foreign policy and first of all achieving the U.S. agenda in its relations with Iran. In fact, we could observe the attempt of the Western politicians and pundits to prove that the new Realpolitik would be a guarantee of constructive relations with Russia. Taking after the Kremlin propagandists they repeat: Let us take Russia as it is! The West has pursued this policy over the last decade and it has led to crisis in relations between Russia and the West. Another myth - on stability. One can hardly avoid the impression that the Western community, including some Western leaders, pundits, and media, really believe that Putin brought stability to Russia. This is a misperception. The current 'stability' is based on four pillars: the oil price, the amazing popularity of Putin, the lack of an alternative, and Russians' memory of Yeltsin's chaos. A collapse of one of the pillars, oil price for example, can trigger a disaster and start unraveling the Russian construct. Another misperception is that Russia is not ready for democracy. This is a very condescending view by foreign pundits in respect to Russia. The situation in Russia is far more complicated. First of all, this is the Russian political elite that is not ready to live in a free pluralistic society whereas the general population says otherwise. Among the approximately eighty percent that support President Putin, fifty-six percent believe that Russia needs political pluralism and only seventeen percent believe that he is a successful leader. This says that the Russian population is far more mature than perceived and, for the first time in Russia's history, there are no insurmountable barriers within the Russian population towards freedom. IA-Forum: How do you view the impact of the Putin regime on Russia's youth? Dr. Shevtsova: It's very difficult to get a full understanding of the Russian political and social landscape especially when it is still so fluid and constantly changing. The situation with the younger generation and its moods are very difficult to understand to forecast its evolution. From my personal experience teaching at the Institute of International Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, current students are much more pro-State and pro-Putin than two or three years ago. They believe that Putin has been responsible for increasing Russia's strength and leverage in foreign policy, that Putin brings dynamics to the country, and provides much more stability. The younger generation wants to have hope and that hope lately is linked to President Putin. I think that is quite understandable because people started to live better under his regime and Putin made Russia more prominent in the foreign policy scene. But when you look at the long-term perspective, you'll understand that current growth and stability are not sustainable. Then a very important question can be raised: how would those young people who believe in President Putin perceive Russia's stagnation and crisis? After all, German fascism emerged after the population lost hope and became disenchanted and humiliated. However, the picture of the younger generation is not totally bleak: there are hundreds and even thousands of young people, especially among the students, who are pretty critical of the regime and hundreds of them take part in the dissent rallies - thus the hope is not lost for a future democratic Russia. IA-Forum: What are your thoughts on the results of the recent Parliamentary elections? Dr. Shevtsova: At first glance, the Russian parliamentary elections (December 2007), have been successful for the Kremlin. The Kremlin got the results they apparently wanted with sixty-three percent of votes cooked up by the authorities for United Russia. But if you look beneath the surface, there is a very paradoxical picture because it wasn't really a parliamentary election. It was actually turned into a referendum on trust in the outgoing President. That is a paradox in itself and this shift contradicts the constitution. Now consider that in his second Presidential election in 2004, Putin got seventy-two percent of the votes. So the sixty-three percent of votes in the Parliamentary elections for Putin's party is not that big a victory. In the end, the parliamentary election has made the Russian parliament a mere joke because President Putin and Russian political heavyweights are not going to sit in the parliament and be deputies. This is also a blow to the multi-party system and even to the Kremlin's United Russia because in the run-up to the parliamentary election, President Putin said that this party (United Russia) has no ideology, no ideas, no principles, and is even the refuge of scoundrels. Moreover, Putin said that he was not going to join United Russia. This describes Putin's attitude toward the multi-party system, his own party, and the parliamentary election. The parliamentary election was used as the instrument to bring Putin added legitimacy and turn him into the national leader. But what is the "national leader" in Russia? No one knows; this is something vague and ambivalent. In fact, the existence of the national leader would mean that the new president of Russia has to be a "technical" president, a tool in the hands of the national leader. Duality of power - this is a really serious threat for Russian stability. IA-Forum: What is your assessment of Dmitry Medvedev as the presidential favorite, Putin's future as possible Prime Minister, and a potential working relationship between the two if Putin becomes Prime Minister? Dr. Shevtsova: Medvedev, who got his nomination to be Putin's successor, has been loyal to Putin during the entire period of their relationship which is over seventeen years. Apparently Putin seems much more comfortable with Medvedev than any other representative from his team. Besides, Medvedev looks to be the best candidate for the role of the "technical president." There are several scenarios that may be put forth about the future. In the first scenario, Medvedev is elected Russian President in March 2008, and President Putin declines to be his Prime Minister. In this situation, Medvedev will be on his own. As the sole Russian political leader, he will be forced to consolidate his power by rejecting the power and political regime of his predecessor. This is the typical, logical progression of the Russian leadership: every new leader dances on his predecessor. At the moment this scenario seems hardly probable, but we should keep it in mind. Scenario number two is a bit more plausible. Medvedev is elected President and Putin will be appointed his Prime Minister. In this case, there would be a very strange relationship that contradicts Russian tradition and the Russian constitution. It can produce not only a split within the political class but it will baffle the Russian population that is used to seeing one boss in the Kremlin – the President, not the Prime Minister. But serving as Prime Minister, Putin will probably have most leverage and clout from President Medvedev. It's very difficult to tell how this strange construct would work. It could also bring paralysis of power. The third scenario – Putin continues in some role to exert key influence on the Russia's development and even returns as the president. This scenario is possible in the next one - two years. But in this case of continuity, we can envisage more or less, stagnation, because Putin has rejected all reforms and put everything on the back burner trying to guarantee the status quo. Any status quo in a country like Russia would mean stagnation and systemic crisis. IA-Forum: What steps should be taken for the Russian-American relationship to reverse its current trend of animosity? Dr. Shevtsova: Frankly speaking, I don't think anything constructive can happen before new leaders are in place in the Kremlin and the White House. Next year will probably be a year of stagnation or have elements of crisis in the relationship between Moscow and Washington. However, if Medevdev has some clout, he could start a new page in relations. I think this is doubtful however because Putin will probably still control foreign policy. There are two obstacles for much more constructive U.S.-Russian relations. First, the divergence between systems and difference of values - we build our states on a different basis. Besides, the Russian political elite consolidates its position using anti-American feelings. Second, a difference of values brings different understanding of common interest. That's why Russia and America view issues such as Iran, nonproliferation, international terror, Kosovo, and ABM so differently. In spite of this, I believe that the new Kremlin and White House could start a new chapter by negotiating elements such as a nuclear agenda, the issue of conventional forces, and ABMs in the Czech Republic and Poland, and finally Iran where we have some convergence of positions. Even with having differences in values, both new leaders could look towards more constructive mutual engagement. But this engagement will demand realistic approach and political will. IA-Forum: With the victory of United Russia and Putin's high approval rating, Russians would appear to be very satisfied with the current regime and its politics. It also appears to put Russian liberalism in a difficult situation. What needs be done for a resurgence of liberalism in Russia to occur? Dr. Shevtsova: That's a difficult question because I do not believe that any kind of resurgence or revitalization of Russian liberalism can happen with the current high oil prices and "oil stability". But there are several variables that could help Russian liberals. First, we need to consolidate the fragmented liberal forces. Second, liberals need to work on a new liberal agenda. Third, that new leaders should come to the fore, or at least those who could pronounce a definitive agenda of Russian liberal forces. Fourth, Russian liberals need to have a link with society, that they understand social problems; especially the drama of social disparities. And finally, they have to create a united democratic front in order to defend the constitution and to prevent totalitarian backtracking. The ability of the Russian liberals to unite with other forces in defense of the constitution will be one of the most important factors for the resurgence of the Russian liberals. Lilia Shevtsova chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Project for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before joining the Endowment, she was deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Center of Political Studies in Moscow. She has been a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley and at Cornell University, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Ms. Shevtsova is a member of the Council of the Russian Political Science Association; serves on the editorial boards of American Interest, Journal of Democracy, Pro et Contra and Demokratizatsiya. Lilia Shevtsova is also professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs of the MFA of Russia; leading researcher at The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House, Great Britain); member of the Executive Board of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Great Britain); member of the Advisory Board of the Women in International Security organization; associate with the Eurasia Program of the Social Science Research Council; member of the Board of the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University.

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