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   September 23
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Analysis & Opinion
23.07.10 Could Russia’s Foreign Policy Drive Domestic Modernization?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger

The bi-annual gathering of all of Russia’s ambassadors abroad at the Foreign Ministry is usually a dull ritual with pompous speeches and that are quickly and justifiably forgotten. But this year President Dmitry Medvedev showed up to make what the Kommersant daily dubbed a “revolutionary” speech, naming the EU and America as Moscow's key partners and telling the assembled diplomats that their main task is the modernization and democratization of Russia. Could foreign policy really be a driver for change in Russia? Can Medvedev reform the Russian Foreign Ministry and the nation’s diplomatic service to better serve the objectives of his presidency?

Announcing that overcoming the country's technological backwardness is his chief project, Medvedev demanded that the Foreign Ministry “use foreign policy tools for the purposes of modernization.” “Our diplomats should also know all the basic spheres in which we are engaged like the Lord's Prayer,” he said. He said he wants to make the nation’s foreign policy the “driver” or the engine of change for Russia.

He listed three tasks that all Russian diplomats must now concentrate on accomplishing – modernizing the economy, strengthening the institutions of Russian democracy and civil society, and fighting against organized crime. As Kommersant emphasized, these tasks have never before been declared as the priorities for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

He said the Foreign Ministry could do its bit for modernization by establishing links with countries whose cooperation “will give the best return for the development of technology in Russia,” and would help to provide access for “high-tech Russian products on regional and global markets.” Medvedev called for “special modernization alliances,” primarily with the European Union and the United States, noting in a positive context his relations with Barack Obama and the warming of contacts with Poland.

Explaining the importance of the development of democracy in Russia, Medvedev noted that Moscow “must facilitate the humanization of social systems everywhere in the world, and first and foremost at home.” “It is in the interests of Russian democracy that the greatest possible number of states should adhere to democratic standards in their domestic policy,” he said, noting that such standards “cannot be imposed unilaterally” but “should be developed jointly, taking into account the opinions of all the interested states.” This is unheard of talk from the Kremlin, which only recently was espousing the virtues of “sovereign democracy.”

Medvedev has also asked Russian diplomats to either change their stereotypical worldview shaped during the Cold War, or leave the profession and allow the younger generation to try a more cooperative approach. It was a call for Russia’s Foreign Ministry to make a transition from “Mr. Nyet” to “Mr. Da.”

“Proceeding from the multi-vector nature of modern life, we should work openly, renouncing confrontation, and should sometimes simply remove the blinkers that any state may have, and which our country probably has as well. We must find the strength to renounce stereotypes, even if they were acquired long ago while studying at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations).”

Finally, Russia’s diplomats were criticized for the poor quality of their cables to Moscow, with little substantive analysis of events or recommendations on how to proceed. “They were told that the president is able to read himself on the Internet about events happening in the world. And much sooner than they report them to him,” a diplomatic source told Kommersant.

Is this merely talk, or a serious effort? Can Medvedev reform the Russian Foreign Ministry and the nation’s diplomatic service to better serve the objectives of his presidency? Could foreign policy really be a driver for change in Russia? Did we not see a similar approach fail under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s? Can Russia really form “modernization alliances” with the United States and the EU? Would his call for such alliances be answered in the West?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA

President Medvedev’s speech at the Foreign Ministry addressed that institution’s mission, but it also echoed other speeches that he has delivered to senior staff at other Russian ministries. All the governmental institutions of Russia are enlisted in the process of modernization.

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 detriment to modern governance – not only because of these people’s unreformed, though hidden, Marxism, but also because the administrative system of the late Soviet Union simply did not work. Hence Medvedev’s complaint in his speech about the lack of substance in diplomatic analyses, and one might mention also the ridiculous venture with the “pseudo-agents” recently deported from the United States, who were apparently tasked with doing what for other countries is the duty of legitimate diplomatic activity.

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

Russia’s foreign policy does benefit from the competence of highly motivated diplomats, including an excellent foreign minister and staff in 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 must increase. That is the overall impression of the speech.

Regarding the subject of the “sovereign democracy,” this term has evoked much criticism from those who believe (in a classic Marxist maximalist fashion) that democracy is some kind of universal doctrine, which must be the same everywhere. In fact, democracy in Switzerland, Britain, Japan, France, Germany, Brazil, Russia and India is very specific to localities and societies. “Sovereign democracy,” like “managed democracy,” is not a topic for opprobrium but a matter of the realities of each democratic country. In the United States the president must be native-born, and is not elected by popular vote – this is an example of “sovereign” and “managed” democracy; and similar examples can be drawn from every operational democratic system. Democratic governance is not a textbook design, which can be imported to any country, like an electrical power grid or a rail network. The American experience in Iraq is a clear example of this failed notion.

It is a residue of totalitarian thinking to assume the existence of a standard and universal “democratic political model.” In fact, Medvedev indirectly refuted this view in his speech when he declared the requirement that democratic definitions must consider the perceptions of all members involved in the process.

Modernization, like democracy, is a process of social evolution. One cannot establish it mechanically, and one cannot force its maturation. It is a permanent process, spanning generations. In the 1950s African-Americans lived in conditions analogous to the South African apartheid – it took 60 years for a transition to a different society.
Yet the road must be taken and it requires long-term commitment to change by everyone, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, University of Wollongong, Australia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly indicated the importance he attaches to the modernization and diversification of the Russian economy. He understands that these goals are very dependent on the establishment of the “rule of law” in Russia, and making the country more attractive to foreign experts and investment. If history is any guide, a less aggressive Russian foreign policy in and of itself will not alter this situation.

Unfortunately, recent events would seem to indicate that neither of these preconditions is likely to be met in the near term, or even in the foreseeable future. Why not? One can identify scores of reasons, but for the sake of simplicity I will limit my discussion to two recent developments in Russia.

Firstly, speaking before a gathering of federal and regional legislators in the Kremlin, Medvedev acknowledged that the anti-corruption campaign that he launched as one of his major priorities has not yielded “significant successes.” This should come as no surprise either to Russian nationals or those who monitor developments in the country.

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

Secondly, even if the new Russian law that expands the FSB’s powers was indeed president Medvedev’s idea (a fact that may be true in the narrowest of senses), and actually aimed at facilitating counter-terrorism activities, its provisions certainly should be of concern 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 cannot do the job required of it in this area. Indeed, economic progress is difficult to achieve if there is considerable instability in the country.

Nonetheless, giving extraordinary powers to the FSB is a cause for alarm, unless reliable mechanisms are put in place to ensure compliance by FSB personnel with Russian and international law, and to hold accountable individuals who abuse their power. I would love to be mistaken, but it is difficult to have a high degree of confidence that this will occur.

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

Lastly, please forgive me, but I am always skeptical about the use of adjectives such as “managed” or “sovereign.” in front of the word “democracy.” In contrast, terms such as “parliamentary,” “presidential,” and “vulnerable” I readily accept.
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