Series: Looking for the Real Russia—Insights from Japan-Russia Experts (1)
Russian Political, Economic, and Social Issues and the Russian Mentality
Russian Political, Economic, and Social Issues and the Russian Mentality
University of Niigata Prefecture
In Japan, Russia is often examined solely in terms of the bilateral relationship, with few opportunities to learn about this vast continent from a more multi-faceted perspective. Ahead of the presidential elections in March 2018, we present a four-part Russia special through the eyes of Japan-Russia experts who have been deeply involved with the country on the front lines of their respective areas.
A quarter-century has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Looking back over that time, I examine the domestic political, economic and social issues facing Russia today as well as basic issues in the country's foreign policy, with a focus on the mentality of the Russian people.
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a great upsurge of optimism over liberalism and democracy, with not only the Russian people but many in other countries too feeling that if only the one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party could be overthrown, Russia's high levels of culture and education would position the country to become an advanced democracy in a very short period of time.
However, in the 1990s following the collapse, when Boris Yeltsin came to power, Russia instead experienced a humiliating descent into disorder and chaos, while to most Russians the concepts of liberalism and democracy became synonymous with turmoil and anarchy. Russia lost sight of principles for uniting the country politically and plunged into a national identity crisis.
What the people wanted most at that time was not freedom and democracy so much as authority that would control the turmoil afflicting the country and the establishment of order. When Vladimir Putin took control in 2000, Putin himself believed that he could still establish a democracy that combined Western values with traditional Russian values.
People eventually realized that Russia lacked the various conditions required to embed Western democracy, and as noted in January 2006 by internationally-renowned Russian political scientist Dr. Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia ultimately moved from the Western trajectory and launched into “free orbit.”
In other words, Russia returned to its traditional authoritarianism and nationalism as principles for integrating the Russian people. In the end, with the economy recovering on the back of strong resource exports, Russia had no choice but to revive a “Great Power” style of nationalism as a way of overcoming the country's identity crisis.
With the West increasing sanctions against Russia in response to the March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Syrian issue, Russia has increasingly developed a siege mentality along with a sense of victimhood in relation to the outside world, and in recent years the words of Tsar Alexander III have been frequently quoted: “Russia only has two allies: the army and the navy.” Putin's annual Direct Line TV phone-in too is in fact a modern-day incarnation of the tradition of petitioning the Tsar. Using Russians' traditional faith in the Tsar to strengthen his authoritarian regime, Putin has kept a strong support rating of over 80 percent.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many people inside and outside Russia were optimistic that if only Russia could free itself of the heavy pressure of socialism, its advanced science and technology and abundance of human and natural resources would enable a quick transition to the same market economy system as the developed countries.
However, even once socialism disappeared and oil and gas money poured into the country in the 2000s, normal market economy failed to take hold in Russia. The main reason was not a lack of capital or insufficient legal and industrial infrastructure, but rather the absence of the kind of culture and mentality essential in a market economy system based on the protection of trust and contracts.
Ironically, in complete contrast to Japan, while Russia has an abundance of natural resources, they have actually hampered the advance of market economy. In other words, in the 2000s, resource exports created a massive influx of foreign currency, so there was little incentive to gradually change the traditional mentality and push through with painful structural reforms to evolve the market economy system.
The Russian economy is still dependent on oil and gas exports today, with the result that the drop in oil prices in recent years has impacted heavily and made the economic sanctions noted earlier a real burden on the country. The challenges ahead for the Russian economy will be to foster a mentality that emphasizes trust and contracts and engage seriously in economic structural reforms that will free it from resource dependence.
Russia's greatest social problem is the difficulty of stamping out corruption. Recent international corruption rankings put Russia right down at 136 among 175 countries (Transparency International), a bad situation indeed.
I describe Russia as a “sand society,” and the corruption problem is also closely related to this. What I mean by a “sand society” is one in which everyone works only for their own personal interest, so that in the absence of a rigid framework (authoritarianism, dictatorship) and cement (the concept of national unity, religion, ideology, etc.) the country would destabilize and descend into disorder. While I don't necessarily view this “sand society” as Russia's inescapable destiny, it will certainly take centuries rather than years to change the national mentality.
However, as the examples of Singapore (7th in the above ranking) and Georgia (50th) show, heavy-handed methods can clamp down on corruption and disorder in a relatively short period of time. However, Russia is much larger than these two countries, and it is doubtful how effective the same methods would be.
This is also evidence of how poor the investment environment is. A particularly serious related social issue is that the majority of talented and ambitious young people who have acquired specialist knowledge and skills—the “creative class”—are despairing of Russian society, where connections and bribes are essential to getting specialist posts, and want to move overseas.
Butting heads with the West over the Ukraine and Syria, Russia's leaders are increasing viewing the outside world as a hostile place and themselves as victims, which has led them to work to build a special partnership with China. China's One Belt, One Road strategy was initially thought to conflict with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union strategy, but as Russia lacks the economic strength to oppose China, it has now come up with an integration strategy that reconciles the Eurasian Economic Union with the One Belt, One Road initiative.
Russia is also taking a cooperative line with China on the military front. However, there are conflicts of interest between the two countries in relation to influence over Central Asia, etc., as well as economic relations. While Russia puts top priority on its relationship with China in Asia, it also wants to avoid becoming subordinate to China given the massive economic and political presence which the latter has developed, and is consequently also working to strengthen its relations with Japan, India, and the Southeast Asia countries as cards it can play off against China.
In recent years, Russia has also been developing an approach based on a geopolitical spheres of influence perspective in the Near and Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, etc. It is said to be aiming for a new Yalta Agreement, which is of great concern to the Baltic nations, the Ukraine, Poland, and other neighboring countries. It will therefore take a long time to resolve the Crimea issue and the eastern Ukraine issue. In other words, Russia's chilly relationship with the West can also be expected to continue, and Japan too needs to achieve a fine balance in its Russia policy.
About the Author
Professor, University of Niigata Prefecture
Graduated from the Faculty of Letters at The University of Tokyo with a major in philosophy. Completed postgraduate studies at Moscow State University and a doctoral course at The University of Tokyo Graduate School. Has held the posts of Visiting Research Fellow at Princeton University, Visiting Professor at The Graduate School of The University of Tokyo, and President of the Japanese Association for Russian and East European Studies. Currently Professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture and Professor Emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University. Granted an honorary doctorate by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Has a wide range of interests including art, literature and philosophy. His many publications include Reading the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (co-authored with Boris Yeltsin), The Depths of Socialism (which won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities), and The Reality of Culture.