The crucial mistake is the lack of public and government attention to man as the principal subject and object of development.
Over the past several years, Russia has been in a state of economic and, most importantly, moral and intellectual stagnation that may develop into degradation. As the world economy slows down, international competition becomes increasingly systemically fierce and broad. The main competition in the future will center around economic, technological, ideological and information aspects, and it will involve the fight for human resources that sustain them.
We have so far identified only one way to respond to external challenges — military buildup, while the focus on the export of energy resources and raw materials should allow Russia to preserve its niche and levers of influence. But this approach cannot make up for the absence of other responses and, most importantly, an effective development strategy.
The growing uncertainty inside and outside of Russia and the fear of change pushes uncompetitive segments of the elites and population (which have historically been large enough and which grew even larger in the 20th century due to systemic elimination of the strong) towards suicidal alienation and further squeezing out of the most energetic and educated. In the absence of its own strategy and guided by the logic of least resistance, the authorities are beginning to play to these segments of society.
If these tendencies persist, Russia will be doomed to stagnate, fall behind and lose the status of one of the great sovereign powers, which is part of identity for the majority of people. Although many of Russia’s global positions were regained in the 2000s and its foreign policy is highly professional, Russia becomes a nation without a future for the rest of the world.
Realizing that this path leads to a dead-end, in 2012 several members of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, the oldest independent public organization, started looking for a way out of this impasse and began drafting a set of documents we called Strategy XXI. As a product of discussions involving nearly two hundred intellectuals, politicians and experts of different ideological backgrounds, the Strategy draws on the works of a broader community of thinkers and experts. Young people, who are vitally interested in the future of Russia, took a most active part in these efforts. They revealed that there existed an alternative, forward-looking and essentially realistic development strategy for the country.
This Strategy seeks to ensure moral and political revival and economic modernization. The way (and simultaneously the goal) is to preserve and increase the country’s human capital — of all citizens of Russia. This is the main national objective and a source of global competitiveness. Given the target-setting vacuum in many countries, the development and perfection – intellectual, moral and physical – of man can become the Russian idea for the rest of the world.
Naturally, the proposed strategy does not claim to be universal and comprehensive, and it is open to discussion. It intentionally does not put the economy in the center of discussion. Over the past several years, the national economic community has worked out an impressive and quite convincing set of proposals (specifically Strategy 2020). Strategy XXI calls for shifting the focus in the public reform policy from the economy to society and people. Otherwise, no economic strategy will work. The authors suggest not just correcting but essentially changing the vector of development.
The Strategy is neither right- nor left-wing, neither pro-government nor opposition in nature. It’s just different. It can be called progressive-conservative. And we would like its discussion (or even criticism) to help start a dialogue between the Russian elites, which are fatally and suicidally divided.
The causes of the current state of affairs
It was mere luck that Russia avoided disintegration or civil war after the collapse of socialism and the Soviet Union. By 2007-2008 the country had largely completed post-Soviet transformation, restored its international status and geopolitical positions. The framework of the state – supreme power and bureaucracy – was rebuilt, but neither ideology of development nor its rules, i.e. law, were created. But most importantly, there are no “walls” – a mass of active and responsible citizens. As a result, we can see a fragile incomplete structure. After 2008, Russia froze in ambiguous dreaming about modernization or in illusions that it can “lock in profits” and preserve the status quo.
Meanwhile, over the 20 years of “wandering in the desert” after the revolution of 1990-1993, the country has failed not only to understand a number of crucial problems inherited from the 20th century but also recognize some of the systemic mistakes it made, let alone start rectifying them.
I am not going to lay the blame on the first generation of reformers who had to work in critical conditions of post-revolutionary chaos. The revolutions and reforms of the late 20th century were carried out with virtually no intellectual preparations due to the lack of time.
The first crucial mistake has been the lack of attention from society and the government, reformers and counter-reformers to man as the principal subject and object of development. At first the political class thought that Russians would immediately turn into democrats. The barely avoided catastrophe of the late 1990s led to the triumph of “managed democracy,” which basically meant maximum exclusion of people from political life and from the upbringing of responsible citizens and patriots.
Simultaneously, higher education was made nearly universal either by folly or for the sake of social peace. As a result, the system of higher education was emasculated, while secondary education had degraded because of underfunding.
Quality education is an essential condition of success. As Bismarck eloquently noted, it was the Prussian teacher who had ensured his country’s victories. Japan, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and China all invest enormous amounts of money and effort in education and go far ahead of others. The U.S. maintains global leadership largely owing to its higher education, which is regarded to be the best in the world.
The ruling and intellectual elites did not bother to attend seriously (rather than rhetorically) to the need to revive patriotism and ties between society and native land, with the thousand-year-old history of Russia and its great culture. All battles were fought mainly over the attitude towards the Soviet past. It was believed that the national idea and a new identity would come into existence all by themselves as if by magic or by market demand. But they did not.
We did not want to understand that the source of all problems was within us and in the condition of the people. The problems are rooted in the way Christianity was adopted, in the history of the Yoke and in long slavery, and certainly in the 20th-century tragedy of mass extermination of the best citizens and culture figures along with the best traits of the national character such as faith, honor and the feeling of being the master of one’s fate and country. The sprouts of law and burgeoning human dignity were trampled upon.
But opportunities also lie within us, an incredibly talented, courageous and enduring nation with a strong and deep-rooted feeling of patriotism and striving for independence. Russia is still a country of educated people, and it is important to preserve this advantage we took over from the Soviet Union.
The second mistake is the model that was used for privatizing large property assets. For political reasons, in order to break the backbone of communism, it was carried out with lightning speed, without creating a mass class of owner, and it still remains morally illegitimate for the majority of people. Besides, and this is yet another equally serious mistake, no effective system of law protecting private property has been created over the past 20 years. As a result, in order to preserve it, one has to make constant deals with the authorities or move out assets abroad (this is the principal cause of corruption and lack of patriotism among many elites).
The third mistake is the lack of attention to the development of modern post-industrial economy. It was associated with the post-revolutionary chaos at first and then with the blessing of high oil prices and oil revenues.
The causes of stagnation are objective (see above) and clear: after 80 years of deprivation – communist egalitarianism and poverty followed by destitution and revolutionary chaos – society wants to take a break and enjoy the delights of consumption. The higher-ups, who have got control over systemic redistribution of rent, are not eager to change anything. Intellectuals, who get bits of those oil revenues, prefer to aimlessly criticize and slam the authorities, demanding the removal of the regime or immediate democracy, which in the present circumstances will most likely destroy intelligencia together with the country as it happened in 1917. There is no grassroots pressure. The niblets people get are so much richer than their hand-to-mouth existence in the not so distant past that this seems to be enough to keep them quiet.
There is a dangerous and unusually wide (even for Russia) disunity between elites, which was further deepened by mistakes made in 2008-2012 when the traditional and new intelligentsia were enticed at first (and they were happy to follow) by calls for modernization, which never occurred, and then pushed away. Intellectuals are the main supplier of ideas and images for the country and the world, and the authorities in modern open society committed to development cannot succeed unless they restore cooperation with this social group.
Relative social peace reigns for the time being. The majority of people want things to stay the way they are, although they are discontent with social, law enforcement, educational and health problems. The political opposition is weak.
In the medium term, the country can remain relatively stable, but deep down the trends endangering long-term development, competitive positions in the world and the status of great power become increasingly pronounced. Society and the state are not getting prepared for competition in the future world where success will favor countries that have high-quality human capital.
Furthermore, society and the elites have lost their goals, touch with their land and history, and their identity. The Soviet communist identity was scrapped, albeit grudgingly, but continuity with the Russian empire was not restored. Adherence to the Western model is waning as is the connection with the great Russian culture, which is the core of our civilization. With no forward-looking development project, the people and its elite have lost the daring and the drive which many Russians still had in the 1990s and which saved the country many times.
It’s time to start changing the situation from both the bottom by pushing the authorities and from the top by compelling society towards development. Otherwise, given inevitable negative changes in the world arena, inequality may spark massive left-wing and (or) chauvinist demands. Divided elites will flee and (or) will start crashing each other. There are already some signs of that.
Let us repeat the main point: Russia is not laying the ground for its future by allowing its system of education and upbringing to deteriorate. Twenty years from now there will be nothing and no one to build it with.
The absence of a positive agenda from the authorities or anyone else increases latent irritation (even among those who support the status quo for the time being). By failing to offer “a Russian dream,” the authorities, including the national leader, put themselves in a position of an “outgoing” party that has to play defense.
This increases pessimism, mistrust of the future and reluctance to invest in it. This is a unique situation in world history: the country exports raw materials, money (capital flight) and quality human resources, who find no use for themselves at home. On the whole, the situation is painfully reminiscent of the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s when the ruling bureaucracy prospered, intellegencia despised the authorities, while living quite comfortably, and some fled the country, and people kept silent amid mounting pessimism, just like now. In the following decade oil prices fell and the country crumbled quickly. In the 21st century, history moves faster — and in unpredictable ways.