Russia and the G8 summit
Russia cannot fully “arrive” unless the prevailing orthodoxy changes
By Vlad Sobell
25th July 2006
• Both the friendly and critical accounts of the G8 summit in St Petersburg acknowledge that Russia has succeeded in changing the balance of power.
• However, the regime’s enemies will see this as a temporary setback, with the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections presenting another opportunity to destabilise it.
• This note argues that Russia cannot become a fully-fledged member of the “West”, unless the prevailing Western orthodoxy is abandoned – an exceedingly unlikely prospect.
• This is, first, because Russia has introduced the novelty of a former totalitarian power liberating itself by its own efforts. And, secondly, because Russia’s natural resources will continue to fuel the regime’s anti-Western “paranoia”. Unfortunately, this “paranoia” is not without rational foundations.
• Since the prevailing “democratic orthodoxy” is unlikely to be modified, Russia will not, in the foreseeable future be accepted as a full member of the Western club.
The G8 summit has marked Russia’s “arrival”
The analytical commentary on the balance sheet of the G8 summit in St Petersburg varies in its tone – suggesting either that the “increasingly authoritarian” President Putin showed his true colours by bullying the West, or that his skilful diplomacy has finally placed Russia on the map as a fully fledged and equal G8 member.
Nevertheless, a common theme has been the recognition (in the former case offered grudgingly) that the summit has marked a change in the global balance of power: whether authoritarian or democratic, Russia undoubtedly has arrived as a major global player, which must be taken into account by the others. Furthermore, although Russia’s economy cannot yet be credibly compared with those of the other G8 members, Russia’s position as a key producer of energy – at a time of surging prices and growing concern over “energy security” – has assured it a legitimate place at the top table.
Both the critics and supporters of Putin’s regime rightly saw the summit as a seminal event, which would either legitimise the regime’s “authoritarianism” and “resource grab” or sanction Russia as an emerging democracy and an equal partner of the West – depending on the particular point of view. In this respect, it would be impossible to conclude that Moscow has succeeded. President Putin may have tirelessly explained the regime’s policies and ideology (of “sovereign democracy”) to his colleagues and Western press, with President Bush apparently being swayed. But the summit, nevertheless, must be interpreted as a mere battle in the ongoing “war” between the regime and the legions of its domestic, but mainly foreign, critics.
The regime’s enemies may have been bruised, but they are by no means defeated. New battles already loom – the end-2007 parliamentary and early 2008 presidential elections. It is a safe bet that the rest of this year and 2007 will see another campaign to discredit the regime’s democratic credentials, with calls for “free and fair” elections and post-election allegations of electoral fraud. Subsequently, Putin’s successor in the Kremlin will likely remain the target of the same criticism as the current incumbent.
Russia will remain an odd man out
These predictions derive from what might be summarised as Russia’s structural and normative incompatibility with the prevailing global order, exemplified in the concept of the “West”. Whatever Russia may do – and however democratic or “authoritarian” it may be – it simply does not, and will not, fit into this paradigm. Or rather, it may fit, or try to fit, but it will do so only with extreme difficulty. Russia would fit properly only if the paradigm itself changes (ie. the whole Western community dissolves) – a prospect, which cannot be realistically anticipated.
The roots of the difficulty lie in the novelty of Russia emerging from the Soviet totalitarianism and the empire by its own efforts, with the change gradually maturing in the innermost core of the Soviet culture and society. Paradoxically, while these changes were innately democratising, they already contained the seeds of the coming clash with the West over the character of Russia’s emerging democracy.
This is because the prevailing Western orthodoxy holds that “genuine democracy” can reside only in the Anglo-American axis (the victors in the Second World War) or be seeded by the axis in the defeated totalitarian powers – most significantly Germany and Japan. By emerging spontaneously, in the conditions of the cold, rather than a hot war, the Russian democracy could not help but challenge the prevailing dogma. Thus the global “democratic empire” cannot help but reject this Russian “illegitimate child“, because its very presence challenges the foundations of the established global order.
Incidentally, this interpretation raises some interesting issues. For example, if it is true – as the Putin regime argues – that, in a post-totalitarian environment, genuine democracy can be built only by a gradual, “organic” change of the indigenous culture, then it could be argued that powers such as Germany and Japan have undergone an “unnatural” (non-organic) democratic development. Their democracies were implanted from the outside, with the indigenous cultures having to expend considerable time and effort on embracing, modifying and digesting them. Alternatively, the latter’s “immune system” inevitably had to be weakened, at least temporarily.
If this is so, could this be the reason why both Germany and Japan – despite their unparalleled economic might – continue to live in the geopolitical shadow of the original democratic axis? While both Germany and Japan have in recent years displayed an increasing willingness to project their economic might into a geo-political dimension, they have not yet done so to the same extent as France (which was on the victorious side in the Second World war) and certainly not in the same extent as Putin’s Russia.
Since inherent in the logic of the Russian regime’s ideology of “sovereign democracy” might be the description of these powers (Germany and Japan) as “non-sovereign” democracies, the Kremlin’s insistence that Russia is genuinely democratic and sovereign is bound to ring strongly dissonant tones. As noted, the prevailing orthodoxy simply does not have room for a Putin-style “sovereign democracy”.
Another interesting issue is the Western orthodoxy’s reaction to the Kremlin’s claim that Russia did not lose the Cold War because it introduced democracy of its own volition. It is very unlikely that the orthodoxy would ever accept such claims. Its position will (must) remain that the communist regime collapsed, and the Soviet Union disintegrated, only (or, at least, chiefly) because of the competitive (arms race) pressure imposed on it by the Reagan and Thatcher administrations.
The energy factor
Another main reason why Russia is destined to remain an odd man out is its role as an “energy superpower”. A defining feature of Putin’s regime has been its agitation by the idea that the “victorious” West is bent on a gradual takeover of Russia’s energy resources. This lies at the roots of its alleged paranoia, while explaining much of its authoritarian conduct, such as the clampdown on Yukos and the imprisonment of Michail Khodorkovsky. This conduct, in turn, has poisoned Russia’s relations with the West and appears bound to be doing so in perpetuation.
However, there can be little doubt that the regime’s concerns are justified. Not only it is a fact that corporations such as ExxonMobil – linked with key figures in the Bush administration – intended to buy into Russia’s then largest oil company Yukos (eventually acquiring a controlling stake), thus dominating the sector. The conspiracy theory also makes a lot of sense intuitively. Given the erosion of the Russian state in the 1990’s and the trend of increasing US dependence on imported energy (along with a deepening instability in the Middle East), it would be naïve not to conclude that the “American oligarchy” was, indeed, minded to capture the Russian assets. After all, who was the victor and who was the vanquished in the Cold War?
These tensions have also been manifested in the gas sector, with Gazprom (Russia) jealously keeping foreigners out of its assets, unless the West offers to open its downstream markets on the basis of strict reciprocity.
Clearly, the dominant structural feature of the Russian economy – the large hydrocarbons and raw materials sectors – and the increasing global hunger for these resources cannot but have underpinned the regime’s drive towards “sovereign democracy”. The regime feels it must ensure that these resources ultimately will remain under Russian control. And, given its recent experience, it feels it must re-double its efforts in this respect.
What does the future hold?
Looking ahead, we should look out for any evidence that that the West – but chiefly the US establishment – is willing to accept the regime’s claim that the latter played no role in Russia’s liberation from communism. Should this be accepted, the said establishment should eventually also acknowledge the regime’s right to develop the Russian democracy as the Russians themselves wish it to be developed, without the West insisting on its right to censure and lecture the regime. (Given Putin’s persistent high popular support, it seems that they are very happy with the direction the regime has been pursuing). Ultimately, this should also yield the acknowledgement that it is up to the Russians alone to determine how the country’s natural resources are developed.
Given the inherent inflexibility of any orthodoxy, the powerful interests vested in its survival, and the continued lure of Russia’s resources, such transformation is unlikely in the foreseeable future.