Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Free but Undemocratic Russia: Policy Recommendations by a Russian General

Last time I wrote a summary and review of a policy brief on Russia by Anders Åslund, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He insisted active commitment by the West to promote democracy in Russia and install pro-American regimes in the Former Soviet Union.

In this post, I will introduce another policy brief by Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center. He was a former general of the Russian army, and faculty staff of NATO Defense University.

Just as Anders Åslund, he argues that the West needs to be patient and inclusive to deal with Russia. On the other hand, General Trenin is more cautious of Western intervention into Russian politics. He presents in depth analyses of democracy in Russia. Though he has an elite career in the communist regime, he understands the value of democracy very well as American and European opinion leaders. From now on, I will summarize and review his essay.

In the essay, Trenin insists that Western policy to Russia is confused because of misunderstandings. While the West criticize Putin’s czarist policies, Russians distrust the West. They feel that the West weakens Russia by installing pro-American regimes around their country, channeling Islamic radicals in Chechnya, and ultimately, planning a regime change in Russia itself. Therefore, he says that the West needs better understanding of Russia.

First, this brief examines democracy in Russia. According to Trenin, current Russia is free but not democratic. What does this mean? Russia is free. The parliament is lively, private business can make profits, and the media can criticize the authority. However, Russia is not democratic. The president is the sole decision maker. Capitalism is dependent o the authorities. “Free” media are owned by oligarchs.

The West is critical to Putin’s czarist policy. But in fact, “free but not democratic” trends began in the Yeltsin era, when he enacted first democratic constitution in Russia. Boris Yeltsin was interested in keeping power, but not building democratic institutions. Therefore, democracy did not develop in a free political system.

Then, what is required to make Russia a true democracy? Dmitri Trenin says that Western democracy did not prevail until a self-conscious middle class takes root and flourish. Only successful and sustained development of capitalism can cause this. This process will take a long time in Russia. Also, the bulk of the nation must be above minimal subsistence level in their living standard. Otherwise, he warns, any attempts for democracy will lead to populism.

Currently, Russian politics is managed by self-absorbed elite. In order to move the country toward democracy, it is necessary to establish the baseline of ownership and decision-making. This process itself does not assure democracy, but it is a prerequisite for a constitutional rule of law.

In addition to founding the baseline, the rise of civil society is necessary. Kremlin officials and propagandists like to say the 19th century conundrum that only true European in Russia is the government. Despite such atmosphere, traditional liberalism of intelligentsia takes roots. However, this liberalism is not widespread because it is at odds with patriotism. Today, liberalism in Russia needs to combine freedom with nationalism. New liberalism will emerge from the new bourgeoisie and urban middle class. They will organize themselves beginning from the local level to process demand effectively, and ensure accountability of the authority. Such a new liberalism will appear coarse and anti-intellectual. It will focus on good governance, rather than social justice and human rights. Initiatives by businesspeople will diminish Kremlin’s one-man rule gradually.

General Trenin describes capitalist development and its impact on democratization. Real capitalism in Russia began when Boris Yeltsin adopted the new constitution in 1993, which secures private ownership and business gains. The West accuses Putin of arresting oligarchs. But this is what Russians desired. As long as oligarchs do not get involved in power politics, they are safe. As capitalism develops in Russia, market expands, which provides consumers with more right to choose.

This transition has caused cultural change among Russian people, from collectivism values to private values. In the past, they took pride in their country’s missile forces, ballet companies, and big dam projects. Now, people take pride in their private properties and schools for their children. As a result, the middle class composed of self-conscious individuals is emerging.

In foreign policy, Trenin says that Russian influence on its neighbors is in decline, and Kremlin has neither resource nor will to compete with the West in expanding influence on former Soviet states. Therefore, he argues Russia should liberate itself from imperial burden, and transform as a modern great power. Despite cooling relations with the United States, Russia recognizes American supremacy. Since the West criticizes Kremlin’s Chechnya policy, Russia distrusts America and Europe. Therefore, it is logical for Russia to make a rapprochement with China.

Though Russian importance on the global stage is declining, Trenin insists that this country will not become negligible. The West has immediate interests in energy security and new security threats such as terrorism and WMD proliferation. Russia is an oil and gas exporter to the West. It is a key partner for the US and Europe to deal with Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Korea.

Finally, Trenin presents the following policy recommendations to the West.

1. Long-term viewpoint: There are no short cuts for democracy.
2. No exclusion: Don’t exclude Russia from G8 and international organizations.
3. Concrete demand: The West must distinguish things they can and they cannot for Russia. Also, make specific demands. For example, instead of a big issue like human rights, the West should demand better treatment for prisoners and professionalism for judges.
4. Contact with grassroots: Never think of king making in Kremlin. More contact with young people will nurture better relations with Russia.
5. Friendly relationship: Don’t treat Russia a “pariah” state just because it is “authoritarian”.

At the end, he advises that the West should stop interventionist policy to Russia, and leave Russians’ business to themselves.

Dmtri Trenin understands essence of Western democracy, and presents in depth analyses of current process in Russia toward democracy. On the other hand, he shows some viewpoints as a Russian, in his skepticism to Western intervention in Russian politics. This essay is quite helpful to understand Russia, and reevaluate democracy in the Western society.