Vladimir Ryzhkov

09 February 2010

medvedev90_150As anticipated, the report recently issued by the liberal Institute of Contemporary Development titled “21st-Century Russia: Reflections on an Attractive Tomorrow” caused a big stir in the muddy waters of Moscow’s elite.

The opposition forces quickly threw their support behind the main thesis of the report — that the successful modernization of the country is impossible without political democratization. As expected, United Russia and propagandists loyal to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin viciously attacked the report, accusing its authors of trying to return the country to the “wild ’90s” and even of thirsting to dismember Russia, a scenario that former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously described in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard.”

Most observers have contemptuously labeled the Institute of Contemporary Development report “utopian.” They contend that the proposals are not only unrealistic a priori, but also that the overwhelming majority of Russians do not support the ideas, even if they could be carried out in theory. In my view, the accusation that the report is “utopian” and calls for a return to the “wild ’90s” are entirely unfounded.

The authors are all renowned specialists in their fields: Igor Yurgens, chairman of the management board of the Institute of Contemporary Development; economist and sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher; journalist and military analyst Alexander Golts; economist Leonid Gregoryev; political scientist Boris Makarenko and others. They took a fair and objective look not only at the unprecedented corruption and government abuses of the 2000s that transformed the country into a bureaucratic and autocratic police state, but also at the destructive chaos of the 1990s.

A call to reject and fundamentally reform the failed 2000s is far from being a call to return to the failed 1990s. On the contrary, the report proposes a new strategy for developing and modernizing the country. In both the 1990s and the 2000s, leaders all but ignored the task of building modern government institutions. The freewheelers in the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin and the champions of the “power vertical” in Vladimir Putin’s administration both ruled the country through decrees and by taking “manual control” of affairs. Moreover, both administrations to one degree or another did little to develop an independent parliament and judicial system, a multiparty political system or the rule of law.

The main problem in Russia was, and still is, the absence of functional political institutions. The country’s chief scourge is not the “raw-

materials curse” but the “institutional curse.” The government has turned into a gang of more than 2 million predatory bureaucrats-cum-marauders — some wear epaulets and some do not.

In the latest Global Competitiveness Report 2009-10, Russia dropped 12 spots in the ranking from the previous year — to No. 63 out of 137 countries. The reasons for Russia’s fall were: a shortage of effective state institutions (ranked 110th in the world), an insufficiently independent judicial system (ranked 116th), a lack of protection of ownership rights (ranked 119th) and government favoritism toward individual companies. In 2001, when Putin promised to strengthen the state and lead Russia to prosperity, the country’s overall competitiveness ranking was actually higher (ranked 58th), and the rankings for the quality of its institutions and protection of ownership rights were twice what they are today. So much for Putin’s promise to “strengthen the state.”

The authors of the Institute of Contemporary Development report focused on the creation of modern institutions and on forming a civil environment for citizens and business. What’s more, they offer very concrete and feasible proposals for reforming the military, police, secret service, economy and social services. The main reforms are not technologically based but institutionally. The report addressed one of the most important reasons behind the country’s backwardness and lack of competitiveness — the country’s weak and dysfunctional institutions.

Opponents of the report were most infuriated by the authors’ insistence upon the need for political reforms as a necessary precondition for modernizing institutions, the economy and the country’s technological base. That proposal prompted the champions of the police state to claim that they sensed the authors’ desire to “return to the wild ’90s” and to “Ukrainize” Russian politics.

But political competition, freedom of the press, an authentic multiparty system, direct elections of governors and mayors, the rule of law and an independent judiciary were not simply characteristic of the 1990s. They are, as the authors justly point out, clearly mandated by the Constitution. Moreover, they are fundamental attributes of any modern, developed state. Of the top 30 countries in the Global Competitiveness Report, only four do not have strong democratic institutions: Qatar (ranked 22nd), United Arab Emirates (23rd), Saudi Arabia (28th) and China (29th). But in contrast to Russia, all of those countries give high priority to protecting  property rights of businessmen and investors, upholding the rule of law and maintaining the separation between public officials and private business.

There are a great many supporters of deep reforms in Russia. Political scientist Mikhail Afanasyev surveyed 12 groups representing Russia’s elite: regional and federal officials, military and law enforcement officials, judges, leading businessmen, officials working in health, science and education and journalists. It turned out that only two of those groups — Federal Security Service agents and federal officials — support Putin’s power-vertical and state-capitalism models.

The remaining groups that were surveyed reject these models. They agreed that instead of modernization, the country’s institutions are deteriorating, and the state is becoming increasingly incompetent in its ability to manage the economy. These groups believe that the country needs to carry out serious political reforms — above all, intruding real political competition by institutionalizing a multiparty system, the separation of powers, civil society, the direct election of governors and strengthening federalism among regional governments. They also support a politically responsible government, parliamentary control of the executive branch, an independent judiciary that is accountable to the public and full freedom of speech.

Thus, the Institute of Contemporary Development report  not only addresses Russia’s most important institutional weaknesses, it also demonstrates that the most educated and active members of society understand exactly what reforms the country has to undertake to achieve political and economic modernization.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

The Moscow Times