RuNet is a powerful catalyst for transforming Russia
Valdaiclub.com interview with Thomas Gomart, director of the Russia/Newly Independent States Centre at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and member of the Valdai Discussion Club
You call oligarchy the current system in Russia. Could you say that it suits the majority of the Russian population?
First of all, I’d like to emphasize the favorable public opinion on the Putin-Medvedev tandem. With the exception of 2009, the past decade registered strong growth and considerable improvement in living standards. I think this explains Russia’s current social bond. At the same time, this improvement was accompanied by the consolidation of the oligarchic system. A demarcation line between Big Business and the political sphere that is being represented by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev has probably become better defined, but Russia’s system remains profoundly oligarchic in the distribution of wealth.
Now we are concerned about the next 12 years. The next Russian president will have a mandate for six years and can stay in power for two terms --- 12 years until 2024. This issue gives rise to a number of questions: What changes should we expect? Will this oligarchic system survive in the current political configuration? Will the middle class continue to be content with the system that is impenetrable at the top government level?
Then when will the middle class start playing a more or less noticeable role in Russia’s political life?
It is difficult to predict a specific time. Any analysis shows that sooner or later the middle class will have political aspirations. It would like to receive political guarantees of certain things, for instance, that earned fortunes could be transferred from one generation to another. Living standards have and the conditions of life have improved and people may well wish to consolidate these gains politically. We are witnessing these developments in the majority of political systems. Specifying when it will happen – in 2014, 2015 or 2016 – is a difficult task. I would abstain from guesswork but I do believe that changes in Russia are inevitable because the middle class will no longer accept the existing system.
Will there be a Russian Spring? Some experts draw such parallels…
These parallels are unfounded. If we compare Russia with the countries where revolutions took place – Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya – we will see very different political systems and different levels of political maturity. Though the Russian system is authoritarian it has much more open spaces for discussion than the said countries. I’m referring, for one, to the development of the Internet in Russia. Even if the political system in Russia is blocked, it still has some outlets that did not exist in the Arab countries.
They are also poles apart demographically. Russia is a country with an ageing population whereas these countries failed to give jobs to its young specialists. The issue of educated people unable to find their place in professional life is typical for the Maghreb countries. It does not exist in Russia – even if graduates of higher educational institutions sometimes find it difficult to get jobs, they eventually become integrated in professional life because they are in demand.
At the same time I think the Russian authorities should remain vigilant. As a foreign onlooker, I can see the increasingly obvious signs of fatigue from the Putin system. Also, the current government displays feverish conduct from time to time because it relies on the few people at the top.
What do you see as important for Russia’s future elections in December and March?
In think we should now talk about the Putin generation. He is the leader who received power in 2000 and may keep it in theory until 2024. Now the question is how he perceives himself in Russian history, how he understands it and how he will use this period, this quarter century generation in order to change history. I think he must base his rule in the context of Russian history. How will he correlate himself with Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev or Yeltsin to a lesser extent? In fact, Putin has a span of history at his disposal that allows him to leave his own imprint on Russian history.
Apart from the system being blocked, stagnation is one of the inherent risks in our future. Under Putin, from 2000 to 2008, Russia saw strong growth. Putin managed to make skilful use of part of it, but this growth was largely due to the dynamics of prices on raw materials. Two factors coincided – good luck and an ability to make use of it. Prices on hydrocarbons are likely to stay high and Russia’s energy rent is likely to be at top level until 2024.
But will these factors prepare the country for the post-2024 period? Will they create a system capable of diversifying and modernizing the Russian economy at the same time? We can only wait and see. There is a risk of blocking the oligarchic system where oligarchy largely rests on rent with certain exceptions but practically without any exceptions in innovations and enterprise. I think it is important to see whether the Russian government is capable of encouraging enterprise and developing a political and social system that would favor individual initiative.
What is the Russian government’s vision of modernization? Is it strictly economic, without any change in political institutions?
I think in Putin’s case it is permeated with the idea of dirigisme whereby the state is the main vector of transformation. This is reflected in a desire to have national champions in the economy and to see modernization as a process largely governed from above. I’m not sure this development is good for Russia. The formation of such national champions leads to the concentration of power and consolidation of the oligarchy, especially in the Russian system and makes it more difficult to give society breathing room. This approach may be a source of structuring in some industrial spheres, for instance the energy sector, but is hardly adequate for national modernization in general.
Could you note some successes in Russia’s modernization?
RuNet is an interesting subject of study. This political venue is much more open than other media for expressing discontent with the existing order. At the same time, the authorities are also active in it. It is also a place where part of the population, the most educated and young users express their abilities as entrepreneurs. There are real success stories in the RuNet. There are companies, such as Yandex or Mail.ru that have become global, established themselves well among the Russian speakers and can take part in world competition. I think experts in Europe do not pay adequate attention to the Internet in studying Russia. I was genuinely surprised to learn what I did about it. It is a much more dynamic sphere than it is perceived and I think it is a powerful catalyst for transforming Russia. Probably, it will determine the success of Russia’s modernization to a certain extent.
Higher education is also worth observing. There are some nuances here – there are whole layers in this system that are not competitive and can only produce personnel for the Russian economy. But there are also other layers that can compete very well in the world arena. I think this is also an element of modernization.
One more issue pertains to technological innovations, the extent to which such initiatives as Skolkovo can create positive developments. However, it would be too early to answer this question today.
Should we expect any changes in Russian foreign policy with the return of Putin, who is considered a tougher leader?
I’m not sure if he is tougher. In my view the key word for defining his foreign policy is “sovereign” or even “sovereignty policy.” Obviously, Russia occupies a much more important place on the international scene than it did in 2000. Credit for this goes to the Russian government that has managed to make this comeback. I’m not sure that Russia’s position will be tougher. Indeed, the media portrayed Medvedev as more pliant compared to Putin, but probably with the exception of their differences on the situation in Libya, I saw a very strong consistency of Russian foreign policy since 2000 and don’t see any other changes during Medvedev’s presidency.
I think this consistency will continue and will be reflected in “strategic solitude.” Russia believes it has a mission to be a power pole and that nobody must tell it how to behave. This is a fundamental issue and it won’t change.
What do you expect in Russia’s relations with the European Union?
I think in the next 10 years they will be determined by the force of inertia. On the one hand, these relations are very important for Russia because Europe is its main foreign trade partner. On the other hand, Europe now is totally unable to define its self-identity compared to 2000, and I think this will facilitate the continuation of Russian policy of bilateralism with regard to European capitals.
What about the post-Soviet space?
The Customs Union project is a real factor of uncertainty. It is unclear to what extent will Russia be able to initiate regional integration processes with Belarus and Kazakhstan and also with Ukraine. There are many vague points here. Although Russia is in a better position now than it was in 2003 when Putin tried to create a common economic space, I’m not sure that there is no fundamental contradiction between adherence to sovereignty and a desire to pursue regional integration. This is an obvious contradiction and the Russian authorities, in particular Putin, will find it very difficult to overcome it.