Vladimir Ryzhkov, writing in the Moscow Times:
Russians hold no illusions about the ability or the willingness of the authorities to “modernize” — the government’s latest catchword — and view such proclamations in the opposite light of that intended. President Dmitry Medvedev and his administration view modernization as the exclusively technological renewal of the country. The president identified five areas in which new technologies should be developed. New legislation is being drafted to stimulate development of the technologies. The decision has been made to build an innovation city in Skolkovo in the Moscow region that will enjoy legal and tax incentives, and the project has already earned the nickname of Vekselburg, in honor of its director, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.
At the same time, the Kremlin categorically rejects every initiative aimed at systematically modernizing the country as a whole. These include not only initiatives aimed at creating and acquiring new technologies but, even more important, reforms to political and state institutions to ensure the rule of law and property rights, and policies to promote greater social justice, a new balance between Moscow and the regions and create a favorable business climate. The Kremlin consistently responds with a “no” to every proposal made to implement systemic modernization — as compared with narrow technological advances — put forward by the democratic opposition, numerous specialists, the Institute for Contemporary Development and, most recently, by the European Commission in its partnership for modernization initiative.
But the Russian people want a systemic form of modernization, one that emphasizes societal reforms and the creation of a new social contract between the state and society. This puts them in agreement with researchers at the Institute for Contemporary Development, Russia’s liberal community and even — though they do not realize it — the European Commission.
This has been shown by a survey titled “Is Russian Society Ready for Modernization?” that was recently published by Mikhail Gorshkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences and Reinhardt Krumm from Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The representative national survey was conducted in April and May. First, 73 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Russia has “a problem, is in a crisis,” and another 11 percent considered conditions to be “catastrophic.”
Second, the demand for change in society is very strong now, with three-fourths of all Russians responding favorably to Medvedev’s call for modernization — understanding that term to mean a program of far-reaching reforms that would help the country emerge from the terrible position into which it has fallen. Third, it turns out that the government’s model for modernization, with its focus on purely technical achievements and innovation, stands in only fourth place among the modernization models Russians prefer, with only 24 percent of respondents supporting it.
Leading the list was a completely different model. That model, with support from 41 percent of respondents, turned out to be the very version of modernization that independent think tanks and European institutions have been pushing for: “The equality of all people before the law and the upholding of constitutionally guaranteed human rights.” That type of modernization requires deep and urgent reforms, including political reforms.
The second most popular model focused on “a tough fight against corruption,” with 38 percent of respondents supporting it. (Respondents could vote for more than one model.)
Russians are clearly dissatisfied with the way that Russian authorities merely pay lip service to the government’s largely symbolic struggle against bribery, kickbacks and embezzlement of budgetary funds. But no real fight against corruption is possible without political and institutional reforms — the return of political competition, freedom of the press, public access to information concerning the activities of the government, and independent judiciary and investigative agencies. According to the survey, the hatred for corruption and corrupt individuals is especially strong among residents of large and medium-sized cities and among those who are highly educated. These are the very people who should modernize the country.
The third preferred model was “providing social justice,” with 31 percent of respondents backing it. The people are more than a little irked by the fact that both the number of dollar billionaires in Russia and the number of unemployed have doubled during the crisis. Russians are feeling growing frustration and even abhorrence over the expanding gap in personal incomes and consumption, the glamorous lifestyles of rich individuals and government officials, the privileges enjoyed by officials on Russia’s roads, and the appearance of closed housing communities with their own elite neighborhoods, schools and hospitals.
The firm and clear demand of the Russian people is not for a narrowly defined technical modernization like the Skolkovo project and the high-speed Sapsan commuter trains purchased from Germany that travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but for a systemic modernization that includes a government subject to the rule of law and accountable to the people, a policy for equalizing incomes, and the elimination of the rampant state and political corruption. Russians are not at all opposed to technological progress, but they clearly understand that no innovative high-tech projects can be carried out in the existing bureaucratic, nontransparent and corrupt environment. People understand the very thing that the Kremlin does not want to understand or acknowledge — that the greatest problem facing Russia today is the appalling quality of the state itself and the poor quality of its government. For this country to survive, it must, first and foremost, modernize the state itself.
Some senior officials and specialists with close ties to the leadership indirectly acknowledge this. The Center for Strategic Development, which gave then-President Vladimir Putin the Strategy 2010 reform program, found in summing up the results of that program that only 35 percent to 40 percent of its goals had been achieved. Even against the 2000s backdrop of strong macroeconomic growth, the authorities failed to create modern public and state institutions, strengthen municipal governments, establish the rule of law, change the backward structure of the economy and improve the overall competitiveness of the economy.
Only an unwillingness on the part of the Kremlin to compromise its commercial interests and its hold on power can explain its persistent refusal to begin a dialogue on a meaningful, systemic modernization of the country. The need for this reform has been acknowledged by the greater part of Russian society, analysts and the political community, from the die-hard opposition to government loyalists.