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Does Top-Down Modernization Work?

Here’s an interesting bit from a Transitions Online opinion article about President Dmitry Medvedev’s state-centered modernization proposal:

Such an approach may have worked for Germany and Japan in the late 19th century, or the East Asian Tigers of the 1960s and ’70s. But the Russia that Medvedev inherited in 2008 was already by any conventional measure a “modern” society – urban, industrial, and educated. Other European states are not trying to “modernize” themselves. So why is Russia?

In normal societies, the government’s agenda is driven by the need to win re-election. Politicians develop policy agendas in response to popular concerns, on a case-by-case basis. Rarely do they feel the need to come up with a programmatic philosophy. Rather, they just need a loose framing device (“yes we can!”) to hold together their pragmatic policy package.

Medvedev in contrast is freed from the fear – and discipline – of worrying about being re-elected. In contrast, his relevant constituency is the faceless mass of Russian bureaucracy. He, like successive Russian leaders before him, needs to persuade them to go about their business in a different way. He faces an uphill struggle. As the influential daily Nezavisimaya gazeta editorialized last week, “The principal players in Russian politics have no material reasons for modernizing – that is, for radically disrupting the status quo.” Soviet communism is dead and buried, but the basic structure of a leader with an official ideology – a logocracy – lives on.