INSOR Russia: Institute of Contemporary Development
Updated June 28, 2019

The Evolutionary Path to Modernity

August 8, 2011

“In planning the strategy for long-term social-economic development, indispensible parameters include the gradual state-managed and state-directed liberalization of public and political life, and development of political pluralism and civilized forms of participation for citizens and business in the political life of the country” – with these words concluded INSOR’s report from three years ago titled Democracy: Development of Russia’s Model.

At that time this sounded seditious, and the authors were at the receiving end of hailstorm of obscenities. Today, this idea appears commonplace in almost every expert group now developing strategies for the social-economic development of the country. And it showed up again in later reports by INSOR – Vision for the Future (2010) and the currently discussed Attaining the Future.

Radicals and Moderates

Stalling modernization and the slew of new evidence of the ineffectiveness of the bureaucratic machine leads an increasing large number of people to the idea of the need for modern political institutions. But the polemic over the agenda for the Russia of the future remains no less urgent. And this was clearly seen in the reaction to INSOR’s most recent report.

The approached proposed in the report – the evolutionary opening of the political system – once again became the target of attacks from various sides. The ‘protectors’ claim that it is simultaneously neoconservative and ultraliberal (such is clearly impossible, but the detractors simply found it necessary to use their entire reserve of derogatory words). And such accusations were joined by claims of a misunderstanding of the historic roots of Russian society.

From the other side, this approach is dubbed an attempt to “teach crocodiles to engage in intellectual activities and adhere to vegetarianism” or “authoritarian modernization of an authoritarian political regime”. Quite biting, but there is no reason to take surprise at the desperation and lack of trust among many Russian liberals in the ability of the current regime to change. Their lack of trust can be explained by Newton’s third law: their efforts (force) to counteract the state machine is equal to the efforts (force) by which this machine pushes many experienced, accomplished and contemporary politicians out of the establishment (the reasons for which will be mentioned below).

There is only one problem with the position of such liberals: they, for example, like July Nisnevich, demand the “immediate replacement of the ruling authoritarian-kleptocratic regime with a democratic political regime”. But nowhere do they explain how this replacement is to be carried out without revolution and major disruptions.

INSOR comes from a different position: Russian society is sufficiently modern, developed and educated in order to build contemporary democratic institutions through a regime of dialogue and compromise, as opposed to through revolution.

Mongolia, Moldova, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria… All of these countries are lower and not higher than Russia in terms of economic development and the ‘contemporariness’ of public structures, but they are all substantially more advanced in the creation of institutions of pluralism and coordination of interests. While this does not automatically solve their modernization issues, it does create a political framework that provides an orientation for the country toward development and creates mechanisms for resolving conflicts.

This argument also addresses the concerns from the other side. All of the abovementioned countries have much in common with Russia in terms of the historic configuration of society: they all were late in exiting the era of feudalism, they experienced cruel totalitarianism with a weak tradition of self-government and pluralism and, with the exception of Mongolia, they are all within the domain of the orthodox political culture. Their success (which of course is far from complete) in democratization has been made possible not by advantageous social-economic conditions or a political base, but rather than the goals set by the elites, from whom ‘modernity’ and their ‘vision for the future’ is clearly associated with ‘Europe’. And modern Europe is equated with democracy. Of course, we should not be naïve: the Bulgarian model was not possible for Russia for many reasons – the Russian political environment differs in its complexities and contradictions that are unbeknown to small European countries. But does that mean an open political system is not possible in Russia?

Alas, a study of past experiences of Russia’s modernizations may lead one to sadly answer this question with an affirmative.

For all periods of modernization in Russia’s past – from before Peter I to our era – the state saw itself as the sole driver of modernization processes, relegating to non-state economic entities and society only the functionary role of implementing modernization concepts. The reform of institutions was required only to the degree that it was necessary to achieve the goals set by the state and eliminating obstacles to these arising from rigid political establishments and societal forces. The Russian state (not excluding its Soviet-communist incarnation) sought to modernize its military and strategic potential and reform the army. In order to achieve this, it reorganized the economy, implemented modern technologies, borrowed foreign experience and attracted foreign specialists, and changed mechanisms of social mobility. But it always strived to preserve a maximum level of control over society – both at the top and at the bottom.

Take, for example, the reforms of Alexander II, the 150th anniversary of which were celebrated (albeit, rather vapidly) this year. The empire was able to force its own officials to accept the military and judicial reforms, but the land reforms were implemented with a bias in favor of the landed gentry as the “buttress of the throne”, as opposed to the peasants. Furthermore, it did not dare to initiate representative government – even the Zemstvo was perceived as a threat.

The societal forces and economic entities set free by the reforms remained politically powerless. The all-powerful landed gentry and entrepreneurial class were kept at a great distant from the highest level of power but at the same time dotingly supported that power as a source of protection from the workers and peasants – that was the explosive cocktail that resulted in the collapse of the empire.

Soviet modernization created a society that was by many measures contemporary – from industry and science to urbanization, education and the social system, but without any real market competition and a complete lack of political freedom, i.e., without owners and citizens. That is why Gorbachev was forced to begin with political reforms: the old system had no desire and no ability to reform the economy (as opposed to the Chinese economy, where even the communist party bosses did not forget that the Chinese know how to work and trade).

Today the power vertical openly distrusts society and strives to domineer it, so that others not get in the way of the divvying up of the public pie and assimilation of budgetary funds. That is why it tolerates only the kind of opposition that under no circumstances whatsoever could claim to replace existing power – only parties that rely solely on either an aging constituency or an aging leader. The young, energetic and ‘market-based’ parties that do not fit within this established order but to the contrary oppose it are an unacceptable risk…

‘Who is to Blame?’ and ‘What’s to Be Done?’

The more complicated society is, the greater the risk that overly centralized and monopolized power will lose its effectiveness, will be deaf to new trends in society and overexert itself in striving to maintain the status quo when life dictates the need for change. Finally, in a closed political system mistakes are unavoidable in the decision-making process and particularly in the presentation of decisions to society. The cutting of maternity payments immediately following declarations of the importance of demographic policy; the introduction of educational standards in such a manner that society hears only that physical education will be mandatory while writing and arithmetic will not; regulation of sport fishing in such a way that fishermen fear that they will not be allowed access to their favorite fishing holes… These are just a few examples not so much of legislative errors but the complete loss of authorities’ capacity to hear society and communicate with it. This crisis of trust between the state and society along with citizens’ crisis of faith that at least something in this state depends on them could doom all modernization endeavors.

There is but one solution – to create channels for dialog and participation. This is what INSOR’s report is about: the gradual opening of these channels so that society can begin to formulate its requirements for the state and so that the state can listen to society. Less leveraging of administrative resources in elections and with political parties, less executive pressure on the courts, more space for local self-government, more severe reaction to corruption… These are just a few of the steps to be taken along this path. One’s buttocks would have to have grown rather inseparable to the seat of power to perceive such ideas as extreme or ultraliberal. Or perhaps those who derail the report as extreme fear that we will follow the advice of a kind-hearted critic of the report and move “toward the goal with imperceptible steps, each of which should seem too minor to give cause for concern and active resistance” (Evsei Gurvich)? Or perhaps they were frightened by the conclusion arrived at by Dmitry Oreshkin: “If you count on your fingers what would remain of Putin’s power vertical, which step-by-step took away citizens rights and gave them to the bureaucracy, then you see that nothing would be left.”

And so we return to the discussion surrounding the report, or more precisely, the degree to which it is radical or moderate. It is unfathomably difficult to find the golden middle here. Oreshkin’s remarks can be interpreted (and this is our own interpretation, of course) as an optimistic answer to the question poised by Georgy Satarov as the title of his response to the report: “Shall we dither? Or shall we go?” Mr. Satarov is inclined to view the proposals in the report as “dithering” and not real movement. He accuses the authors of having an incomplete medical history and not providing a diagnosis of the current state of Russian politics. He does not believe that Russia’s political class is capable of following through in the realization of positive endeavors, which gives cause to doubt the potential of the evolutionary scenario for the development of Russia’s political system.

We deem to disagree with our respected colleague: INSOR’s report does present a diagnosis. It comes from the history of the making of our current political system and the description of the persistence of its infirmities. But this diagnosis is compact, as the genre of the report is an agenda for the future. This is not so much an answer to the question of who is to blame but rather to the question of what is to be done. And if the question is such then, then there is no place for harsh accusations and colorful language directed at and driving away those who built the present political system. Let us repeat ourselves: we are convinced that the Russian political class is for the most part sufficiently mature, prudent and decent in order to fully engage in the construction of a more modern political system. Furthermore, it recognizes the necessity and usefulness of doing so. It was in just such a manner that two decades ago the most vital part of former Soviet nomenclature engaged in the reforms of the 1990s.

Georgy Satarov wrote: “Partial reforms create the effect of relative deprivation… and it is the main source of revolution.” This is absolutely true: the discrepancy between society’s expectations and the ability of the state to meet them (this amounts to relative deprivation) in post-crisis Russia is visibly on the rise. The theory of relative deprivation was first formulated in Ted Robert Gurr’s book Why Men Rebel, and in the word ‘rebel’ he meant not only barricades on the streets but also the defeat of rulers through elections. Thus, when asserting in the report that “development of the political system does not have a revolutionary scenario”, we meant that we believe Russia and Russians to be sufficiently modern and sufficiently rationale in order to express their rebellion not through “thoughtless and ruthless” methods but rather through voting at fair and honest elections. This is the idea behind the specific proposals in INSOR’s report aimed at reforming legislation on parties and elections. Of course, in the end, we may turn out to be wrong and Georgy Satarov – correct. But that will only mean that Russia’s political class did not hear the diagnosis and has led the political organism to the point of death throes, when it is already too late to operate.

Demand for Information

Does this mean that we can only place our hopes on the ‘acumen’ or ‘conscientiousness’ of the political class and elite? If we were to say yes, then we would be rather close to the position of another critic of INSOR – Alexander Arinin, who believes that a mechanism for building an effective state as a foundation for both democracy and modernization is “a system of transparency in the work of officials and monopolies.” And according to his logic, it makes no sense and is impossible to reform the political system. But who will make them give up the privileges of opacity and monopoly? The boss? The leader? The trend is quite apparent: the lower the level of authorities’ effectiveness, the greater the fear of transparency and competition, and vice versa. Monopoly in politics and business further lower effectiveness. 

Escaping this doomed downward spiral is only possible through the reform of the system – institutions and practices which would create stronger disincentives for opacity and monopoly for bureaucrats and business. Otherwise, even the most sincere attempt to force particular businessmen and officials to become transparent will something like trying to pull oneself out of the swamp by one’s own hair – painful and pointless. I am afraid that I cannot name the well-place analyst who last year over a cup of coffee told me: “Many of the current elite would be glad to support modernization in order to get into the social elevators and ride on up, but only they are afraid that the elevator lobbies are not bulletproof.”

Let’s take a look around: society has not only lost its trust in the state; it is also hungry for information. The Internet is already becoming a competitor of broadcast television as a source of political news and among youth and the highly educated it is even leading in some areas. Internet-users are willing to take the time to find information that is objective, sharp and unhampered by censorship or self-censorship.

The expert community is debating various ‘agendas’ – priorities for the economy, politics and the social sphere. Public opinion surveys show an increasing demand for real opposition as a critic and restrainer of the state (but, let’s emphasize here, not a replacement), and at the same time a growing disappointment in elections.

The opportunities provided by the Internet and lack of trust in authorities are working to reinforce one another. The discussion of INSOR’s report was joined by Leonid Volkov and Fyodor Krasheninnikov, the authors of the Cloud Democracy concept. While asserting that “modern technologies call into question the principles and approaches of democracy which until recently appeared to be cutting edge”, they propose replacing “antiquated” elections with Internet-based elections – voting for and against (recalling elected officials) with an eligibility criterion based on the “political competency” of voters and social networks instead of parties.

While much in this concept seems interesting, I am afraid that it is interesting only as a result of the disappointment and desperation arising from our realities, what our elections parties and elected officials have turned into and the lack of accountability before the electorate. It is out of desperation that the authors of Cloud Democracy throw out as useless three of the four pillars of democratic elections (universal suffrage, secrecy of ballot and equal weight) while maximizing the fourth – direct elections. They fantasize about the values of direct democracy while ignoring its colossal drawbacks. I would draw the authors’ attention to the fact that in places were democracy works, modern technologies are utterly changing and enriching communication between state and society, opening new opportunities for more effective elections, parties, representatives, ministers, etc. (although some democracies have been less successful than others at putting these opportunities to use). That said, it would be wonderful to add the energy and creative of Russia’s Internet community at least a few first steps toward opening channels for political cooperation and public oversight of authorities. 

* * *

So let’s try to summarize, midway, the results of the activation of public political discussion about the political system of the country.

The expert community is drawing up various forecasts and scenarios for the development of the country. Even the president admits that within the ruling tandem there is no singular task and there are different views on the methods and paths to achieving prosperity. Is this the end of the world? Of course not. This is a very ordinary phenomenon and a joyful reminder that both leaders and citizens are normal people.

And, yes, there is too much baggage and paternalism in Russia an open political system to function perfectly. But to not open it up means to place under the thumb of bureaucratic pressure an increasingly complex assortment of contradictions, to supplant the development of trust and aligning of interests with worn-out rhetoric about stability, which an increasingly large portion of the population understands as stagnation and a mockery of common sense.

How does one open up such a system? How are these institutions built? What is the correct proportion of the ‘right’ and the ‘left’? The social and the conservative? All of these issues can and need to be discussed. And it would be foolish to claim know everything down to the last peg: we have gone too long without hearing the real voice of society and its active groups. But in order for such arguments to have meaning and for them to produce decisive answers, it is necessary to have a modern and competitive political system. And in this regard, Russia can have no other agenda than this.

Boris Makarenko

Published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 8, 2011