Friday, 21 November 2008

Half Empty or Half Full? - A reply to James Schneider

Mr Schneider wrote a detailed and insightful reply to my last post on Russia in his latest blog entry, and makes several detailed and well thought out criticisms which I would urge any readers to examine. In general, he presents a far more optimistic view on Russian than my own. I sincerely hope he is right to do so.

Before replying to his particular criticisms, I should like to answer his concluding point, that the West should engage with Russia in a manner befitting its status as a European country, and that aggressive policies will only push it further away. This is a point we can agree on. My previous post was concerned only my fears for the direction Russia seemed to be heading, and was neutral on Western responses to that drift. Indeed, two posts prior to my latest post on Russia, I argued that Barack Obama should pursue just such a conciliatory policy. However, I do think, on present evidence, it will be hard for the West to pursue a constructive friendship with Russia without compromising either its interests or its ideals.

In addition to his central contention, that nationalism is dispensable for the Kremlin, which I will consider below, Mr Schneider makes some well-thought out specific points.

One concerns how Russia is likely to attempt to further its interests in the Ukraine indirectly: in particular, that it is extremely unlikely to start any kind of a war. Rather, it will attempt to manipulate the course of domestic politics in the Ukraine to force it towards a more Easterly orientation. I consider all this sound prediction, and I am in accordance with Mr Schneider in this respect. However, I am unsure whether he, as I, would support the West in seeking to bolster the government of the Ukraine and to discourage political infighting if at all possible, and to make it clear to the Ukraine that a path to closer integration with the EU is open to them. Mr Schneider also has some qualms regarding the merits of the War on Terror, a digression that I would be happy to discuss further in another context. However, his final specific point is one I should like to briefly consider. He argues that there is evidence that the decline in the Russian population is slowing, and that Putin has made tackling such demographic issues one of his main foci of his administration.

I would agree with him that Russia is in a state of flux, and it is exceedingly hard to find trends in population change. Certainly, fertility rate seems to be increasing. Conversely, life expectancy at birth has been steadily decreasing for some time. The most pressing issue of Russian demography, however, is migration. Since the fall of communism, young people, especially the most talented, have been fleeing Russia in droves. The relative effect of the economic downturn combined with the degree of domestic political repression, I suggest, will be crucial factors in determining whether this migration pattern continues. Putin’s government could act to improve the demographic situation, certainly. It could, for example, significantly improve healthcare, though given that its budget is likely to be significantly diminished for some time hence, the window in which it can do so effectively is closing.

Moreover, one reason for Russia’s healthcare woes is the flight of talented young medical students elsewhere. Its healthcare problems cannot be fully addressed until Russia renders itself a more enticing place to live and work, retaining its own talent as well as attracting talent from elsewhere. Moreover, I am somewhat sceptical of the ability of Putin’s administration to address some of the underlying factors in Russia’s woeful demographics, such as its very high suicide rate, its high levels of alcoholism, and the likelihood, for young Russian men, of dying a violent death.

Moving on to the substantive argument of Mr Schneider’s piece, his contention as I take it, may be paraphrased as follows: “Mr Shevlin suggests that Russia’s nationalism is all that sustains the Putin regime hence Putin will only ever act nationalistically. However, Putin’s regime is popular for many reasons, so it can display flexibility, including dropping this nationalism if required.”

I agree that Putin’s regime is now popular with its people. I also agree that a lot of this popularity has a lot to do with non-ideological reasons such as economic growth. However, I think it unlikely that Putin will relinquish a nationalist platform, for several reasons.

First, he may not be able to. All the evidence is there that this nationalism is heartfelt in Russian populace. The number of attacks on foreigners, particularly people who are obviously non-ethnically Russian, has soared. In my time in Russia, I found widespread support for the war in Georgia and aggressive pursuit of what were felt to be Russia’s interests. Look also at the devastating internet attacks on Estonia. It is widely believed that the sheer scale of these is evidence of individual as well as state-sancionted attacks. Putin has done much to encourage this nationalism, and if he is seen to relinquish it, he may find his popularity suffers very seriously. A worryingly similar situation is developing in China: Chinese nationalism, once a tool for control of the populace, proved hard for the government to quell when the anti-Japanese riots took hold two years ago. The old adage about putting the genie back in the bottle comes to mind.

It might be suggested that Putin’s popularity would allow him to survive such a shift in policy. So my second reason for doubting that he would abandon this is that one of the major reasons for his popularity, the wealth and stability he has brought to ordinary Russians’ lives, is likely to be undermined in the global economic crisis. It will be interesting to see how this crisis affects attitudes towards Putin in Russia. It may be the case that it significantly harms Putin’s popularity. In this case, nationalism will be one of the few control levers that Putin has left. Alternatively, the economic meltdown might even help Putin – in times of difficulty, one seeks stability and one must show unity, including unity with one’s government. It will be interesting to see which of these scenarios transpires. However, Putin can encourage the latter scenario by displacing blame for the economic meltdown away from his party and finding a scapegoat for Russia’s economic woes, in this case the USA, so continuing to pursue an anti-American agenda. Thus under either scenario, nationalism seems likely to remain as a political prop.

Third, Mr Schneider assumes that nationalism is a purely political device for the Russian leadership, that Putin is a pragmatist wearing ideologue’s clothes. I hope that he is right. However, most of the Russians I speak to have suggested that this is an oversimplification: that there are genuine ideological elements in Putin’s character which push him to aggressively pursue Russia’s greatness in priority to the betterment of its people.

Mr Schneider points to a variety of occasions in recent months and years when Russia has seemed to wear a more conciliatory face towards the West. It is true that a mixed variety of messages might be found in Russian policy towards the West in recent years. I would like to think that these indicate a genuine willingness to engage, given suitable respect and inducement. Certainly I do not think that Russia is set on a policy of confrontation with the West. However, I do believe that Russia continues to regard diplomacy in terms that we in the West would (perhaps naively) consider anachronistic. The Kremlin weltanschauung is one of client states and spheres of influence, that regards Russia’s possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal as an automatic entitlement to at least half of every pie. There have been no signs that the Russian leadership takes human rights, national sovereignty, or democratic values seriously, and as long as this is the case, most of the compromises the West can make with Russia will involve compromising its own espoused ideals and interests. That is not to say that the West should pursue open hostility with Russia, as I have already indicated. There is much constructive work that can be done between Russia and the West. But nor should it be afraid to defend its interests and its allies if they come under threat.


penfold said...

I agree that Putin is probably as nationalistic as he sounds.

One of the great problems with Western foreign policy is the confusion of 'democracy' and stablility. The latter accounts for the success of the former. There is no de facto rule that democracy cannot exist in a one party state. In Africa, for example, the emerging democracies (SA, Botswana, Zimbabwe etc...) seem to be about balancing tribal interests within one government rather than setting up an adversarial multi-party system.

There is a tendancy in the west to associate democracy with process (a free and fair vote etc...). Conversly many in the developing world associate the word democracy with the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and individaul/social rights.

Russia is nationalistic because it is deomcratic. After the recession of 1998 they are naturally suspicious of an imported Western government. A strong single party provides them with stability. As long as there is a free press (on this there are very worrying signs coming from Russia) and universal sufferage, then one party rule can be democratic.

penfold said...
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