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Kasparov.ru: Russia’s future could easily be like China’s past

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Dec. 2, 2010, 6:43 p.m. | Op-ed — by Paul Goble

Paul Goble

The Russian Federation is unlikely to be dismembered or partially absorbed by other countries, an expert on modernization says, but it could lose its economic sovereignty in much the same way that 19th century China did, a country that was not colonized but rather subject to unequal treaties in which foreigners had extraterritorial rights. In a wide-ranging interview posted on the Kasparov.ru portal, George Derlugyan, a professor of macro-sociology at Northwestern University, told that site’s Olga Gulenok how such developments could happen drawing on the contents of his recent study, “Five Centuries of Modernization of Russia”.

Derlugyan notes that Russia has undergone “three powerful waves of modernization,” but he notes that “under Russia, we understand the state, and not the nation, and under modernization, development intended [by the state] to catch up” with some other country or group of countries that were or are more developed.

“The first modernization wave,” Derlyugan says, “had as its goal to catch up with China and Turkey.” It took place under Ivan the Terrible, who borrowed from the others to end the divisions within Russia. The second occurred under Peter I, who drew on the experience of the Dutch and the Swedes.

“The third wave,” which was carried out by the Bolsheviks, involved the application of German experience, the Northwestern sociologist says. They, he suggests, “studied not Marx but other Germans who build ships, roads and so on.” He adds as an aside that “the greatest mystery” of the Bolsheviks is not that they took power but that they held on.

In these modernizing drives, the Russian state adopted one or both of two strategies, “the pitiless exploitation of the peasants,” something that often led to famine, and “the destruction of the oligarchs,” a group that has been in many cases “as more important resource” for a Russian state wanting to catch up with someone else.

“If the elite has the chance to conduct its own economic and foreign policy,” Derlugyan continues, the state will die.” A classic example of this is what happened in Poland. It was a strong power but then the Polish elite “entered into trading relations with other Western partners on their conditions,” an arrangement that ultimately led to Poland’s disappearance from the map.

The American sociologist agrees with his interviewer that “today, the interests of the Russian oligarchy have entered into contradiction with the survival of Russia.” That does not mean that it will fall into pieces or be colonized: “No one now is interested in the direct annexation of territory.”

But he continues, “we live in such times when countries while preserving the external attributes of statehood cease to be independent.” Bulgaria is an example of this, but so too is China of the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It continued to exist as a country but was not an effective one.

Instead, Derlugyan points out, “the country was split into fighting cliques. In every province was a governor who had his own forces and his own economic interests” and who was more interested in his own profit, even if that meant making deals with foreign interests, than in the defense of China as a country.

Russia could suffer a similar fate and not be “economically sovereign” even though it might retain other attributes of a country.”A large country with such a population,” the specialist on Russian modernization suggests, “will take a long time to die. This is not an instantaneous process.”

Sucha prospect helps to explain why some in Moscow are talking about the need for a new modernization drive. “It appears to me,” Derlugyan continues, that “the current situation in Russia is like the stagnation of the USSR in the 1970s.” At that time, the party apparatus felt the need to do something but it did not know what to do.

It had become clear to many at that time that “the USSR had exhausted its two main resources for modernization. The educated population would not put up with the old methods,” and consequently, the regime could not make use of repression of a Stalinist kind. Consequently, it decided to try liberalization, as risky a step as that turned out to be.

The problem then and now, he suggests is that the regime must control the state apparatus. If that is the case, “everything else is possible.” But “the bureaucrats are not controlled,” and “the leadership of the country does not know” how to bring them under control. “This is the problem.”

In the past, the regime had used terror, Derlugyan says, and he argues that “without some kind of repression” no one will be able to achieve anything, although he suggests that such “repression” may involve the use of the media to expose officials and bring them to justice much as has happened in Illinois.

But at the present time, many are afraid of going that route because of what happened under Gorbachev. Because of his policies, “the Soviet Union fell apart when the leaders of the provinces” and republics “understood that Moscow could no longer punish them or defend them” but rather would leave them on their own as had happened in the bloc states.

That led to a situation in which everyone tried to “save” what he could. “Secretaries of the Central Committee, who controlled their own territory, declared it sovereign. … [And] ministers who headed profitable branches, as for example the petroleum industry of the USSR, declared it their property.”

“The irony,” Derlugyan says, “is that the communist elite preserved itselve thanks to liberal values such as the sovereignty of the nation” and the inviolability of property!

A similar process could occur again, he argues, “if the powers that be weaken.” After all, the heads of party organizations in the republics and regions were “very loyal to Soviet power,” until of course they ceased to be. Such changes are “completely probable” under the right conditions.

Asked to sum up his views about Russia today, Derlugyan suggests that “Russia now is a large semi-peripheral power,” one “on a level with Latin America and with all the pathologies” characteristic of such a status. “But Russia retains the ambitions of a great country, and there is great hope that it will again become one.”


Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at paul.goble@gmail.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/
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