The Foreign Service Journal, April 2007

Moreover, the situational factors providing stability today could have the opposite effect tomorrow. Those who rest their hopes on oil to stabi- lize Russia in the long term forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union began with a steep decline in the price of oil in 1986. Russian society supports Presi- dent Putin, but this does not mean that people are happy with his poli- cies. Recent polls show that among Russians, 72 percent say they approve of the president’s actions, yet only 19 percent consider him a successful leader. Seventy-five percent say order is Russia’s most important priority, while just 13 percent opt for democracy above all — but only 15 percent say that human rights should be sacri- ficed to the state’s interests. Such survey results suggest that Russians do not totally reject Western values. Like any society that has not yet learned to live in freedom, Russian society is subject to manipulation. But it is worth noting that Russians have never elected a nationalist or communist president; rather, they have elected pro-Western leaders who declared their inten- tion to modernize the country — Yeltsin and Putin. Russia’s ruling elite, by contrast, continues to live in the past. The possibility that a crisis will prompt the elite to turn completely to nationalism and xenophobia, and that a part of society will follow, cannot be excluded. In fact, the growing nationalistic sentiment in Russia is already alarming, and there are signs that the authori- ties cannot control it: the growing numbers of attacks and murders perpetrated by the Russian skinheads and pogroms such as the recent ethnic clash in the city of Kondopoga in Karelia, are exemplary. If Russia moves further in this direction, it will do so because the elite has failed to offer society a constructive alternative to the old trick of unifying the country by creating an external enemy. The law of unintended consequences also applies here. The harder the regime tries to create a loyal “civil society,” the more likely it is to push the disenchanted and disenfranchised members of society into the streets in protest. The regime’s efforts to marginalize the oppo- sition will only increase its unpredictability and hostility to the system as a whole. That is just as true of Russia’s attempt to flex its muscles in the former Soviet space: pressuring Ukraine during the “gas conflict” stoked anti-Russian senti- ment there, undermined Moscow’s reputation as a responsible partner and encouraged Europe to look for alternative sources of energy. No one can predict how long sta- bility can be maintained in such a closed system. At present Russia’s equilibrium seems secure, but all bets are off if the price of oil falls dramatically, or if the president’s approval ratings take a nose dive. This is not likely to occur to the Teflon-like Putin, but could easily happen to his successor. In the absence of high ratings for the leader who serves as the substitute for a political system, one hardly can hope for stability to endure. Is There a Path to Modernization for Russia? War and the militarization of everyday life were the engines of Russia’s two periods of modernization under Peter the Great and Josef Stalin. By bringing the stand- off between the Soviet Union and the West to an end, Mikhail Gorbachev shut these engines down. Failing to find a new impulse to spur reform, the Russian elite has fallen back on the spirit of militarism. The regime now attempts to revive a fortress mentality and cynically cre- ates new myths — among them the belief that the nation can modernize by distancing itself from the West, even as it relies on the West’s economic and technological resources. On occasion, the Russian elite even borrows language used by the Bush administration to justify its emphasis on military might and its role as “the only sov- ereign” in Eurasia. But if Russia is not moving forward, it is not quite slipping back into the “premodernity” of the Soviet or pre-Soviet era either. Not having the resources (or even the political will) to fully resurrect the old traditions, the political class is attempting something new in Russian history. It is stitching together a hybrid, combining ele- ments of traditionalism with elements of modernism — a process that fortunately weakens the former but at the same time, unfortunately, undermines the latter. In the end, Russia’s bureaucratic-authoritarian system can cre- ate the illusion of development — and many people are prepared to believe in illusions — but nothing more. F O C U S 30 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / A P R I L 2 0 0 7 The temptation to demand free and fair elections in Russia in 2007 and 2008 could prove to be a trap.