Summer 2010

Moscow Heat: How Elusive Is Modernity?

Dimitry Trenin

The big news in Moscow this summer is – heat. The heat wave struck the capital, and much of central Russia, in early July, and has been holding it in its grip for weeks. For a city not accustomed to daytime highs between 33 and 35 degrees centigrade, and not well-equipped with air conditioners, this has been a challenge. Suddenly, the notion of global warming has become less abstract.

In the sweaty and suffocating environment of a large metropolis, one is naturally looking for a diversion. This summer’s entertainment hit was the spy scandal involving Russian sleeper’ agents in the United States. Apparently a remake of a grim Cold War drama, this one had all the elements of post-modern absurdity. The country’s popular press and its blogger community were roaring with laughter. The spy network managed to operate for a decade without earning as much as an espionage charge. Those Russians who had read Graham Greene were reminded of Our Man in Havana’. The starring personality of the spy comedy, a would-be Mata Hari, long on sex, but short on secrets gained through it, was proposed as a candidate for Putin’s party in Volgograd, where they lack colorful personalities ahead of the 2011 Duma elections.

The news of the spy scandal broke unexpectedly, but the issue was brought to a close swiftly and masterfully. The Obama Administration refused to allow the case to disappear into the maze of the US legal system, where it would become a political football. Instead, an all-Russian spy exchange was arranged, in which ten Russians working for Moscow were traded against four Russians serving sentences for spying for the United States.

The Obama White House acted resolutely to simultaneously demonstrate its realism regarding Russia, and protect the reset in Washington’s relations with Moscow, arguably a major foreign policy achievement of the Administration. Those Russians who feared that the timing of the spy scandal – right on the heels of President Medvedev’s seemingly successful U.S. visit – was indicative of the scheming by the enemies of the reset’, were reassured. The budding alliance for modernisation’ with the United States has passed its first stress-test.

Building modernisation alliances’ with the West, in particular with Germany, France, Italy and the United States, has been highlighted as the Kremlin’s new foreign policy doctrine. Speaking before Russian ambassadors and other senior diplomats, Dmitri Medvedev set out the main elements of Moscow’s new policy. This has become the first major course correction since 2004, when Russia finally abandoned Western integration as its principal foreign policy goal.

Medvedev’s July statement had been preceded by a number of developments, both substantive and symbolic, which signaled a departure from the previous policy line (20049), which was marked by anger, assertiveness, and defensiveness at the same time. In May, U.S., UK, French and Polish soldiers marched in a Red Square WWII Victory Day parade. In April, Russia agreed to a compromise solution to the four-decade-long maritime border dispute with Norway, thus making clear that it preferred diplomatic solutions to the issues in the Arctic.

In the same month, Russia made a big symbolic step toward normalizing relations with Poland. Prime Minister Putin invited Donald Tusk, the Polish premier, to jointly visit the site of the Spring 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish army officers murdered by the NKVD on Stalin’s orders. Once at Katyn, Putin did what few believed he was capable of. He knelt at the Polish memorial as he laid a wreath there. This was not Willi Brandt’s famous Kniefall at Auschwitz, but, as these things go, it came close.

Just a couple of days later, improving Russo-Polish relations were subjected to a most brutal and tragic test, as the Polish presidential plane carrying the First Couple and scores of dignitaries to a remembrance mass at Katyn crashed in an attempted landing at Smolensk. The Russian authorities handled the ghastly emergency in an impeccably dignified and professional manner that even surprised many Russians. For the first time in Russia’s modern history, a day of national mourning was declared to honour foreign nationals – and Poles, at that.

Putin’s outreach to Poland had started well ahead of the Katyn anniversary. From 2008, he authorized an in-depth diplomatic dialogue with Warsaw which gave the Poles a sense that Moscow cared about their views. In 2009, he rose to the occasion of the dual grim anniversary, that of the outbreak of the Second World War, and of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that preceded it. He published a candid and conciliatory article in a leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and traveled to Gdansk for the official ceremony.

Putin knew well that many of those gathered in Gdansk would put Moscow’s pre- and post-WWII policies on the spot even as they condemned Hitler’s attack. He, however, was undeterred. He took time to have a long one-on-one talk with Tusk as the two men, watched from a distance by TV cameras, walked the length of a pier. It may have been then that the idea of a joint visit to Katyn was discussed and approved.

Unlike Brandt, Putin was hardly moved by the sense of guilt for the atrocities committed by Stalin and his henchmen in the name of Communism and the Soviet Union. In Putin’s – and many a Russian’s view, too – there were no saints in the 1930s Europe, east or west. True, Stalin had his pact with Hitler, but so did Chamberlain and Daladier, a year earlier, in Munich. Even Poland was not above colluding with Nazi Germany, annexing Czechoslovakia’s Teschen district, only six months before it, too, became Hitler’s victim.

In Moscow’s view, normalization of relations with Poland serves one major Russian interest – to raze a major obstacle to expanding Russian-EU relations. Finally, the Russian leadership has disabused itself of the illusion that cultivating its powerful friends within the European Union, such as Germany and France, and a few other bigger countries, such as Italy and Spain, was sufficient for an effective European policy.

The Russians learned the hard way that any EU member with a serious dispute with Russia was capable of blocking the EU-Russia process. They also discovered that it was futile to expect Russia’s friends within the EU to gang up on Russia’s notional adversaries within the Union. The EU solidarity made that unthinkable, all the business interests of the Germans, and the lingering great-power hauteur of (some) French notwithstanding. As a result, Europe’ has moved closer to Moscow: rather than starting on the Oder, it met the Russians already on the Vistula.

Europe’s importance to Russia has greatly increased under the new foreign policy doctrine. No longer simply a lucrative market for Russian oil and gas, it is now being touted as Russia’s principal external modernisation resource. The publication, in Russian Newsweek last May, of a supposedly secret Foreign Ministry paper made it crystal clear what Moscow’s new priorities were: to gain access to advanced technology, investment and innovation. In a major reversal, Russian foreign policy ceased to be mainly about status preservation; it was now commanded to turn itself into a vehicle for making external resources available for Russia’s modernisation.

The key point in understanding the rationale for the current modernisation drive is that the drive has come from the top of the power structure. It was not imposed on the Kremlin by the opposition and did not result from a liberal coup within the Kremlin walls. It is also more serious than a mere attempt by Dmitri Medvedev, half-way through his presidency, to carve out a niche for himself, so as to appear different, even if only verbally, from his patron and mentor Putin.

The Russian leadership, including both Putin and Medvedev, has gone through a difficult period lately. The global crisis has hit Russia more severely than any other major economy. The notion of a safe haven amidst a sea of troubles engulfing the West, still popular in mid-2008, was dispelled by the end of the year. The promise of Russia’s steady rise, offered by the Goldman Sachs 2002 BRICs’ report, was undermined by the collapse of the oil price. As the world economy started to pull out of recession, new technological foundations were being laid in many countries, whereas Russia was still wedded to fossil fuels.

China’s rise has a particular meaning for Russia, due to the long border and the development deficit on the resource-rich Russian side of it. But China is not alone challenging Russia: India and Brazil are overtaking it in terms of science power’. BRIC is losing its R’.

In this situation, something seemingly paradoxical has occurred. Modernisation was embraced as a salvation by the essentially conservative group that rules today’s Russia. In other words, modernisation has come to be seen as the only way to shore up Russia’s diminishing weight in international affairs, and to keep Russia as a great power in the 21st century. Great-powerism’ which is normally seen as an obstacle to modernisation was now the principal force driving the effort.

This has happened before, of course. Peter the Great modernized the military and government administration to turn Russia into a European power. Stalin modernized the country’s heavy and arms industry to turn the Soviet Union into a global politico-military superpower. Today’s global currency is technology and the capacity to innovate, hence the present focus of the Kremlin. However, the success of the latest modernisation attempt is anything but pre-ordained.

As presently conceived by its supporters in the Russian leadership, the policy of modernisation is too narrow to succeed. To put it in a nutshell, it is technology/​innovation heavy, while being politics/​society light. Unless its gauge is widened to include a real effort to establish the rule of law, curb corruption, ensure government accountability, electronic media freedom, and competitive politics, it is more likely to fail than not.

Indeed, Putin himself, unwittingly, made the case against keeping modernisation within the narrow confines of technological progress. Speaking in May to members of the Russian Academy of Science, he said that, in the days of Brezhnev and Andropov, the KGB fed the Soviet economy with impressive catches of technological intelligence collected in the West – only for those advanced technologies to be rejected by the ossified Soviet economic system. Today, technology imports and innovation stimulation promoted by Putin risk being rejected by the corrupt economic and political system that has emerged in post-Soviet Russia. A warning to remember, unless Putin is prepared to see his modernisation to go the way of Brezhnev’s.

Within the next two or three years, this issue will come to a head. Essentially, the dilemma that the Russian leadership faces can be summarised as régime preservation vs genuine broad-based modernisation. Clearly, Gorbachev is on many people’s minds. He, too, tried to modernise the system, but instead provoked its downfall. There are real risks involved in a genuine modernisation effort, in terms of social stability, political cohesiveness, and even territorial unity of the country. The chance of a success is, if anything, underwhelming. On the other hand, a rejection of modernisation in favor of an energy-based régime security guarantees that the risks will only grow, while the chance of escaping them will diminish.

Russia’s Duma and Presidential polls are scheduled for 2011 and 2012. Whatever one thinks of Russia’s elections – and they are both more and less than what they seem — the new political cycle is right round the corner. As of now, both Medvedev and Putin are in the running, but only one (Putin) will probably decide who will be presented to the electorate for approval. As to the electorate itself, a recent poll had 31% of Russians voting for Putin, 14% for Medvedev, and 20% for an opposition candidate (more likely a Communist or a populist than a Liberal).

With about a third of would-be voters undecided, Russia’s population is not exactly restive, but it is not too docile. Just in case, the Federal Security Service has been recently given a legal right to formally warn would-be offenders about their potential crimes. In the candid words of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s principal political technologist and ideologue, when people below stir, we jump’.

The summer heat will certainly pass well before winter: Moscow, after all, is tied with Ottawa and Ulan-Bataar as the world’s coldest capital city. The political boilerplate, however, is likely to grow warmer over the next 18 months, making, in Surkov’s words, some stir, and others jump. For now, this looks distant, as heat-weary Muscovites traditionally expect the unexpected’ during the summer’s last month. Past Augusts have been rich in surprises: the 1991 putsch, the 1998 default, the 2000 Kursk agony, and the 2004 series of airplane bombings which culminated in the Beslan school attack. Heat, to be sure, is not Russia’s biggest problem.

Dimitry Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.