To understand Russia has always been a challenge. As the American commentator and humorist Will Rogers famously put it “Whatever you say about Russia, it’s true.” From June 30 to July 4, 2013, the IWM, in cooperation with the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia organized a series of international meetings in Moscow, bringing together Western scholars with Russian experts and politicians for debates on the present situation of Russia and its perspectives for the future. For the Western participants, this occasion offered a deep and puzzling insight into the country’s present situation. Most of the Russian experts agreed that the protests of 2011– 12 have irreversibly changed Russian society. The system of “managed democracy” has been deeply shaken, and, as a consequence, conditions have become stricter. Putin’s regime now demands full loyalty from the elites. At the same time, one can observe a process of progressive de-institutionalization.
Not only is the regime subverting existing democratic institutions, its opponents are not good at institution- building either: the protests have not been transformed into sustained structures, as happened during the democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe where they later served as foundations for political parties. It seems that, once more, Russia’s long tradition of a strong state with a weak civil society is prevailing. It remains to be seen, however, if Putin’s new, tougher course will succeed in restoring the stability and popularity of his first and second terms. Foreign policy seems to follow mainly domestic political needs. It is distancing itself from Europe seen as a weak, declining power, and uses an anti-European agenda in order to mobilize the support of conservative groups. Europe is no longer a model for Russia’s decision-makers, who now are proud not to share Western values and instead emphasize patriotism, family and religion. On the economic front, the situation has worsened. The negative influences of the political situation on the economy were stressed by almost all economists—unusual for this profession which tends to abstain from political reasoning. It seems that Russia’s current economic slowdown is not so much caused by global economic crises but has internal causes. Control prevails over economic efficiency; reforms are postponed, which may lead to stagnation and even collapse. The focus is on extracting revenues under conditions of low or absent growth. Russia is dependent on oil prices, which are still high but cannot sustain economic growth. The economy could grow if productivity increased, but companies fear that their investments will be taken away and prefer to wait for a more efficient legislative, an independent judiciary and a non-corrupt executive. As one of the participants put it: “Nobody in the government is talking about how to increase investments—they only talk about how to increase revenues. The debate about economic growth is a smoke screen—government is only concerned about delivering what they promised to the population and to each other.”
The conference was generously supported by the Open Society Foundations.