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Modernizing from the Outside In?

At Russia Profile’s expert panel this week, Vladimir Belaeff of the Global Society Institute and Ethan S. Burger, of the Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Australia, debate whether it’s possible that Russia’s recent show of updating its foreign policy by opening up to the West could also seep into its domestic politics. That’s a question many of us are probably puzzling over right now. Because so many recent moves by Russia can, at least on the surface, appear contradictory. On the one hand, Russia is offering to work with NATO again and helping put pressure on Iran to be more transparent about its nucler program; on the other, it’s promising the country cooperation in the energy sector. And while Medvedev continues to emphasize modernization as one of his key priorities, some recent developments, such as last week’s draft law that would give Russia’s security services more powers, appear to be pushing the country back in the direction of totalitarianism.

Belaeff argues that modernization will be slow process:

A persistent problem for Russia is the Soviet legacy in its administrative apparatus. Every official over 45 years of age was shaped by Soviet education and attitudes. Also, many of the more mobile administrators of the now defunct Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Komsomol made a clever switch to the Soviet administrative ranks in the waning years of the Soviet Union. They preserve the habits and outlook of late Soviet “zastoy,” or stagnation. One needs to recognize among them the adherents of the heirs of Soviet policies and ideology – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which still garners 11 percent of votes in national elections, and even more in some regions.

This Soviet ballast in the Russian civil service is a serious detrimentto modern governance – not only because of these people’s unreformed,though hidden, Marxism, but also because the administrative system ofthe late Soviet Union simply did not work. Hence Medvedev’s complaint in his speech about the lack of substance indiplomatic analyses, and one might mention also the ridiculous venturewith the “pseudo-agents” recently deported from the United States, whowere apparently tasked with doing what for other countries is the dutyof legitimate diplomatic activity.

Realistically, it will take time to replace the ranks of agingmediocrities with other more competent (and also younger) individuals.In fact, many of the “younger” generation of administrators (includingthe intake of the Boris Yeltsin years) have proved to be as weakperformers as their “Brezhnevite” predecessors.

Russia’s foreign policy does benefit from the competence of highlymotivated diplomats, including an excellent foreign minister and staffin key locations of the world – but it is not enough.

Will Russian foreign policy become a driver in domestic modernization?It already is, but the quantity and quality of the results mustincrease.

Burger appears even less optimistic:

Firstly, speaking before a gathering of federal and regionallegislators in the Kremlin, Medvedev acknowledged that theanti-corruption campaign that he launched as one of his majorpriorities has not yielded “significant successes.” This should come asno surprise either to Russian nationals or those who monitordevelopments in the country.

Numerous Russian and foreign entrepreneurs, journalists, politiciansand scholars have frequently identified “corruption” as aninsurmountable obstacle to modernization of the Russian economy.Decisive and effective action is required. Granted, Rome was not builtin a day, but corruption in Russia is so deeply ingrained in thecountry’s economy, political system and social attitudes that themeasures adopted to date have shown themselves to be inadequate for thetask.

Secondly, even if the new Russian law that expands the FSB’s powers wasindeed president Medvedev’s idea (a fact that may be true in thenarrowest of senses), and actually aimed at facilitatingcounter-terrorism activities, its provisions certainly should be ofconcern to those who care about civil liberties and human rights.Granted it is not possible to know in advance how this law may be used.Recent terrorist incidents have shown that the Interior Ministry cannotdo the job required of it in this area. Indeed, economic progress isdifficult to achieve if there is considerable instability in thecountry…

…Russia is not “a field of dreams.” It is not a matter of “build itand they will come.” It is unlikely that the Sochi Winter Olympics, thepreparations for which are fraught with corruption, or plans for atechnology village at Skolkovo, will alter this situation. It is onething to know what needs to be done. It is quite another to have theability to do it. While the Soviets could send cosmonauts into outerspace, they still decided to hire Finns to build their best hotels. Isit any accident that so many important buildings in Russia over thepast few years have been built by Turkish companies?