Mikhail Khodorkovsky, writing in the New York Times:
For Russia, the past decade started out on an optimistic note. The country was emerging from a severe financial crisis and the political upheavals of the ’90s. Industry and agriculture were rapidly recovering and the financial system had been rescued and strengthened. Business attracted millions of people to apply their efforts and talents. The institutions of state had begun to work more reliably and the structures of a real civil society had begun to form.
Today, many people recall with sadness that Russia once had a real, working parliament, where social and business interests engaged in dialogue, where compromises were sought and found. They recall how the country’s judicial system had begun to feel its independence, and how they discovered that they had a civic role to play in the places they called home. There was hope that people in Russia would become active participants in a dynamic, full-fledged civil society.
In the international arena, the voice of a new Russia began to be heard — the voice of a responsible and benevolent good neighbor. Before us lay a long yet well-lit road.
But in the years that followed, Russia turned from it. Today, for all practical purposes, we do not have a real parliament, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech or an effective civil society. The hopes for the formation of a new Russian economy turned out to have been misplaced: Our industrial output, other than raw materials, is not capable of competing even on the domestic market. Russia’s international role has changed drastically as well — now we are more likely feared than respected.
Who is to blame for this turn of events? Not just the Kremlin. Responsibility for modern Russia’s transformation must be laid on the elites — the people involved in the adoption of the most important political and economic decisions.
As a new decade opens, we can see what Russia’s role is in the world. My country is a huge exporter of two kinds of commodities. The first export is hydrocarbons, crude oil or natural gas. The second is corruption. In years past, the victims of Russia’s exported corruption became certain European and American political leaders. Not that long ago, some of them seemed unassailable and incorruptible, but alas, this turned out to be not so.
Unfortunately, in addition to the active export of corruption, domestically we have experienced a monstrous proliferation of graft. The size of incomes from corruption in today’s Russia is comparable with the entire federal budget, and dwarfs levels that existed in the country throughout the tumultuous 1990s.
So where will Russia be heading in the next decade?
Certainly a political economy based upon the export of raw materials and corruption can enjoy a certain longevity, so long as there is stable demand for both.
Despite this, it is obvious that by remaining in its current niche Russia with each passing day loses its core national assets. Among these are a system of quality education, expertise and skills in fundamental and applied sciences, and achievements in high-tech sectors. Demand for these assets on the domestic market is beginning to decline as they become superfluous in light of the appetite for raw materials and the spread of corruption. Touting a small number of showcase high-tech projects is window dressing that fools no one.
As a consequence, Russia risks further degenerating into a classic third-world-style, raw materials-based economy, where corruption is the norm rather than the exception and there is no working system of democratic and social institutions. Some may find this prospect for my country to be deserved, but even they should remember that Russia will retain certain ambitions and nuclear weapons for a long time to come.
To what extent Russia’s coexistence with its neighbors will turn out to be uncomfortable is a question that needs to be asked today. Indeed, this should be regarded as one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.
The reserve of robustness in Russia’s economy and in the political system that regulates it today is not boundless. A corrupt raw materials-based economy will neither cultivate Russia’s vast expanses nor make them liveable. Modern-day mass education and health care systems, good roads and airports, liveable cities with quality municipal-services infrastructure — for a corrupt raw materials-based economy, these are superfluous expenditures.
Today we are already seeing the first results of Russia’s internal “de-cultivation.” Large parts of the country could actually turn out to be not under Moscow’s zone of influence, but under other powers — whether they be autonomous regional groups, neighboring centers of power like China, or international terrorist or extremist groups.
And the transition from influence to control is just one historical step. As in decaying empires of the past, including the Soviet Union, this step will come sooner or later if Russia remains a country that is not held together by working democratic institutions; if it remains a country teetering between administrative disorganization and authoritarianism.
Russia must make a historic choice. Either we turn back from the dead end toward which we have been heading in recent years — and we do it soon — or else we continue in this direction and Russia in its current form simply ceases to exist.
It is only Russians, the people and the elites, and not foreigners, who can transform Russia. But the political, business and intellectual elites of the West could give some thought to three questions:
How does a corrupt raw materials-based Russia influence the West today?
What new challenges and threats will the West run up against if today’s Russia breaks down into pseudo-state formations only nominally controlled from a single center?
Is today’s behavior of the Euro-Atlantic elite in relation to Russia strategically responsible?
I maintain that to deal successfully with its internal political problems, my country must continue to develop a democratic model of governance for all of Russia. Only then will we be able to play a qualitatively new role in the world’s division of labor or fill a new niche in global politics.
Russia can and must become an equal, full-fledged part of greater Europe in socio-economic and cultural spheres; a conduit of European political and humanitarian values on the Eurasian space; a strong and reliable connecting link between East Asia and Western Europe, not only through transport corridors but also through intellectual and cultural interaction. The only proper future for my country is that it grows into one of the intellectual and technological centers of the modern world.
The choice of a new place in the world is first and foremost the responsibility of Russia’s elites. But the West, which unavoidably exerts a great geopolitical pull on my country, must also assess the real level of its own politico-economic risks and be aware of its own share of responsibility for what vector of development Russia chooses in the next few years. Are Western leaders prepared to return to a strategic dialogue with Russia about its place in the world? Will they develop a strategic policy that is not dependent on Russia’s current leading exports?
The answers to these questions will turn upon the choices Russia makes in the next decade. At stake is the fate of our common civilization.