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Don’t Expect Miracles From Russia’s ‘Authoritarian Modernization’

I was surprised by the reaction to the detailed interview that first deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov gave to the respected “Vedomosti” newspaper this week.

For some reason it was generally taken as a tale of the authorities’ plans for constructing a Russian Silicon Valley as part of the realization of their ambitious idea to create an innovation economy in our country. I -- how do I say this politely? -- am not so sure. I think that Surkov had another aim. So I have taken upon myself the none-too-pleasant labor of annotating this interview.

First let me explain why the innovation economy and the creation of creative reservations for scientists are completely beside the point. For one thing, in recent months the media have been overloaded with discussions of all of the authorities’ various plans. The plans are grandiose and laid out in lofty (sometimes touching and sometimes spellbinding) rhetoric. The president himself kicked things off. Then everyone was talking about the report by the Contemporary Development Institute. And now Surkov -- and everyone is discussing his interview.

All of these developments have one thing in common -- a complete lack of any connection to reality. They are building for us a virtual space under the general rubric of “modernization” -- although there are probably other names for it, but that’s not the point. And we -- including myself -- have taken up this game with enthusiasm. But this idyllic picture was destroyed with the appearance of Surkov’s interview. He shouldn’t have done it. If it hadn’t been for that interview, I probably wouldn’t have written this article.

When you, dear readers and colleagues, find yourself eagerly discussing the various topics that are being thrown at you, please remember what is really going on in Russia, in our common country. Remember the constant, ongoing zombification of our people that is being conducted through the state-controlled mass media. Remember the astronomical levels of corruption that have never before been seen in our history, although our history has seen a lot indeed. Remember the uncontrolled police abuses going on across the country, the torture in our prisons and at our police precincts. By now, you yourself can remember the other things needed to fill out this list.

And don’t forget to take into account that all this has been going on for a long time and that the authorities are not in a position to cope with any of it. Many of you will recall the many examples of the authorities’ complete powerlessness to do anything except steal and protect themselves. Think of our burning Caucasus. Think about the destruction of things like the federal state, the separation of powers, political competition. Don’t forget the failed administrative reform or the laughable “war on corruption.”

And don’t forget about how the Soviet Union collapsed. It was also poisoned by the drug of oil. Its economy was also primitive and the dissatisfaction of its citizens was contained by imports. Its bureaucracy was also corrupt, although not nearly so much as today’s. The Brezhnev regime -- like the current one -- maintained the bureaucracy’s loyalty by indulgences of permissiveness. But by this standard too it was way behind the Putin regime. I don’t think we need to recall how the Soviet Union ended. But now, dear readers and colleagues, answer this question honestly: in what way is the current regime stronger, solider, or more experienced than the Soviet regime?

And now, one last test. Honestly answer these two questions: what are the perspectives for the current regime? And -- the second question is based on the obvious answer to the first -- what are the perspectives for our country?

But please be honest with yourself. And then it will become clear that at the present moment Russia has only two real tasks: how to save the citizens of Russia from these authorities and how to save the country itself from these authorities. You and I and our country all have the same problem -- survival. But we shouldn’t think about this too much. Doing so is deadly dangerous. Not for us -- for them! That is why we are all now discussing all this rose-tinted nonsense.

I wouldn’t have written all of this if not for Surkov’s interview. It turned out to be useful in that it supplemented and shaped the general picture with its candor, which was unsuccessfully masked by simple cunning. It is like a lover who spends half an hour professing her love and then at the end asks for a mink coat. Let’s go through the interview together. It has the following structure: about the first 80 percent is all Potemkin innovation villages and at the end comes the main point (the mink coat).

How To Do Innovation

Let’s start with the villages.

First: The strategy for building an innovation economy that we are being offered is oriented toward the giants of business. In real life, this doesn’t happen. Giants are useful when you need to conquer new markets with new products that have been created by the research of scientists and then tested by small and medium-sized businesses. When the strategy is oriented toward large businesses, you run into two problems. First, they don’t understand what you are talking about. Second, they already have their own goals. It doesn’t matter which of these two problems dominates in the end; in either case, the promised result is unattainable.

Second: They are proposing that foreign specialists and our own who have been for years working successfully abroad will come to work on this reservation. But ask yourself, why in the world would they come? What has changed since they left? Have things gotten better? Those who are lured back will end up sitting inside a compound. Otherwise, they will encounter the same things that you and I encounter everyday. These are people with a sense of their own self-worth, which is what pushed them to leave in the first place and has since become natural for them. And do you know how our authorities react whenever anyone displays any sense of their own self-worth?

And, in general, can an innovation economy really thrive based on a bunch of imported brains? We’ll need support staff -- our own. And do you know what is going on now in our institutions of higher education? Who are our young people going off to learn from? Do I need to go into details about this?

Where will qualified workers come from? They are dying off, and no new ones are appearing. Will we import them too? Maybe it would be more effective to import new bureaucrats.

Questions like these arise in connection with almost every thesis that forms part of the glorious panorama that Surkov paints in his interview. All you have to do is read it with a minimum of intellectual effort and a small dose of critical thinking.

Let’s conclude this section with the main point. Specialists agree that an effective innovation economy is based on an abundance of posited innovations. Only a small fraction of them will develop into future breakthroughs. Such abundance is built on the following foundations. The first is independent universities graduating independent-minded students.

Russian educational standards today do not set themselves this goal (free thinkers are dangerous). The second is the freedom and daring to try the most varied things. This is possible when, among other things, there exists a reliable and enforceable right of a person to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor. We don’t have this in Russia. Third, such abundance requires the infrastructure to quickly set up a business based on a new idea. This means affordable credit and the confidence that if a business succeeds, it won’t just be stolen from you. Who would be willing to say that we see even the beginnings of such an infrastructure in Russia today.?

But the main thing is freedom. That is the backbone of creative inquiry -- we’ll get back to freedom later.

So, what can we conclude? Under present conditions and under the present regime, there is only one reason to discuss the creation of an innovation economy and Silicon Valleys -- the creation of a virtual reality. And who is the country’s finest propagandist? You guessed it -- Surkov! Now it is clear why he is in charge of this project.

'Authoritarian modernization'

Now let’s get down to business. I’d like to proceed by introducing some quotations from Surkov’s interview and then following each one with my commentary.

Surkov: “We have a school that tells us that political modernization, by which they mean political dissipation, can ‘do anything’ -- that this is the key to the modernization of the economy.”

I don’t know anything about such a school. Never heard of it -- I mean, a school that says political modernization means dissipation and permissiveness. But that’s not the point. After all, this is a fairly high-ranking government official talking. An official of a regime that is famed for its modesty and restraint. They are known for crashing their helicopters while hunting for endangered animals. They live in palaces in special compounds outside of Moscow. Their cufflinks cost about what person with a doctorate in physics earns in a year. You know the rest.

Surkov: “There is another conception, which I endorse.... Some call it ‘authoritarian modernization.’ I don’t care what they call it.”

Russia has been undergoing “authoritarian modernization” for 10 years now. We see the results.

Surkov: “Spontaneous modernization is a cultural phenomenon (it is cultural -- not political) and has only been achieved in Anglo-Saxon countries.”

Spontaneous modernization was carried out in the United States by the brains and hands of Germans, Jews, Chinese, Indians…and Anglo-Saxons, of course. It is simply that they lived under a political regime under which their ethno-cultural and other differences were secondary. Where you have brains and freedom, you will have success.

Surkov: "The 1990s in Russia proved that the splintering of society in itself does not create positive energy. Yes, some energy is released, but what is it used for and what does it lead to? We saw that nothing happens by itself."

This -- again, how can I phrase this politely? -- is a delusion. Hopefully, an honest one. During the 1990s, independent universities and independently educated people began to emerge. There is a reason why those universities have been suppressed. Independent courts began to appear and people began to use them independently. There is a reason why this independence has been destroyed over the last 10 years. And independent and (which is more important) effective business began to emerge. From furniture factories that were able to export their products to Italy to Yukos, which was looted and destroyed by the authoritarian modernizers. After the August 1998 crisis it was precisely independent business that lifted the country off its rear end in record time. And all it took was not getting in its way. There is no longer any free business in Russia. And all that was the very energy that we so sorely lack now.

Surkov: "If you want to throw up your hands and wait while until from the squabbling of the liberals, from their endless arguments, emerges a new economic miracle, then you have a long, long wait -- I guarantee it. You will have an extraordinarily colorful parliament. There will be talking shops everywhere -- in the presidential administration, in the government. We went through all that -- when one official says one thing and another says something else because one is working for one corporation and the other is working for a competitor."

I reproduce this tirade in its entirety on purpose so that you could feel for yourselves this cry from the soul. The part about the officials and the corporations is particularly touching. It sounds like he knows his material. Of course, you should phrase it differently -- every official has his own business, and those who are stronger have corporations.

Surkov: "If we again have disorder, conflicts, and redistribution, if we undergo Ukrainization, then no one would ever consider investing in and cultivating anything in Russia. Under the noise and chatter about freedom, they’ll carry away everything.”

Here we see the main theme for the first time -- Ukrainization. That’s what happens when you can’t direct elections. As for “carrying things away,” judge for yourselves. No comment is needed.

Surkov: “I think that the main task of a democratic society is to protect people. To protect them from one another. Not to beat one another up for some reason or for no reason, but to protect.”

This, of course, is about our police. And this is a good place to ask: where do the orders come from under which the riot police violently break up protest demonstrations?

Surkov: "For 50 years, Japan was ruled by one party. Didn’t it develop? Yes, we can hardly dream of what happened there."

There are a lot of nuances here, beginning with the fact that Japan is inhabited by the Japanese, and this is important. In Japan, the bureaucracy does what it does, and business does what it does. And the bureaucracy has one overriding task -- to help business, rather than pillaging it. And the reason for this is because in Japan business influenced the ruling party. Isn’t it the other way around in Russia?

Surkov: "Or take Sweden. They had a single ruling party for 70 years. Hasn’t Sweden developed?"

Again, how to say this politely? Delusion. He shouldn’t have mentioned Sweden. Sweden has a super-strong civil society. And what would happen to a bureaucrat who tried to restrict it? There officials resign -- on their own -- not when they are convicted of corruption, but the very moment they find themselves in a conflict of interests. And the reason for this is simple -- because the country has a powerful, independent opposition.

Surkov: “The relentless criticism of democratic institutions is a natural sign of democracy. I’m not the one who said that -- it was a famous European political scientist. If you criticize democracy in Russia, then that means it exists. If there are demonstrations, it means there is democracy. They don’t have demonstrations in totalitarian states.”

Sadly, this unnamed political scientist has deceived Surkov. In Europe, they don’t have “relentless criticism of democratic institutions.” They criticize politicians, that’s true. Sometimes relentlessly, like they did Boris Yeltsin. They criticize mistaken decisions, and they criticize correct ones. They also seek out defects in the way institutions function, since there is no such thing as a perfect institution. And they criticize those defects. But in Russia, no one criticizes the institutions of democracy as much as Surkov and his “political scientists.” Of course, they criticize outside ones -- American, Ukrainian, Yeltsin-era ones. Other critics do not criticize the institutions of democracy in Russia, but the absence of them (the institutions, not the critics).

As for demonstrations, they are equally a sign of democracy and a sign of the absence of democracy. Otherwise, we’d have to say that the regime that Stenka Razin rebelled against in the 17th century was democratic. They most certainly do have demonstrations in totalitarian countries. Sometimes those demonstrations are met with gunfire, as happened in Novocherkassk in 1962.

Surkov: "The system must be adapted to a changing society, one that is growing more complex. But this doesn’t mean we should reject the system. It must be preserved. And we can’t release things that could destroy it. This system is inseparable from the people -- it is deeply rooted in the social fabric. Anyone who wants to destroy it is a social danger."

Here we see it again. The main thing is to save the system and that those who aren’t with us are socially dangerous. This is even more precise than the Stalinist formulation “socially estranged.” It sounds terrifying. But I am against preserving this system. As far as it being “rooted in the social fabric,” I think this formulation is not precise. It would be more accurate to say our social fabric is infected by this system.

Surkov: "It is crucially important to preserve political stability. Stability does not mean stagnation. It does not mean petrifaction. It is a tool of development. Modernization cannot result from chaos."

Here we see it again. The main thing is stability. This is a new scholarly term -- stability as a tool of development. Let me indulge in a short lecture: Stability is never a cause of anything. It is always a result, and a temporary result at that, since otherwise there would never be any development. There are two types of stability. The first is institutional stability. This is the stability of the basic principles and institutions of democracy which, first and foremost, ensures the adaptability of those very institutions. It also preserves a necessary amount of chaos, which ensures the search for the new in civil society and its social creativity, in science, in art, and in business. It is the variety of innovation that is born of creative chaos and ensures development.

But there is a second kind of stability -- extra-institutional stability. This is an illusory, temporary, unstable stability behind which stands the violence of clans or the inflated authority of The Leader. This is not the stability of development, but the stability of the dead end. What kind of stability do you think Surkov is talking about?

Surkov: “It is not certain that Russia could survive a second round of collapse. Although it is certain that it cannot survive in the absence of development.”

These are the last words of Surkov’s interview. And here I am in complete agreement with him. Russia won’t survive. We don’t have Yeltsin. We don’t have our energy. Adaptive institutions have been destroyed. And here it is not just that I agree with Surkov, but that he agrees with me -- with the first part of this article. He is condemning the regime. Justly. Sincerely. Thank you. Maybe that was the main point of the interview?

Forget about the promised Silicon Valley. There won’t be any miracle. Not here. Not now. They don’t have enough time.

Georgy Satarov is president of the Moscow-based INDEM foundation. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on the website “Yezhednevny zhurnal” are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.