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What Will Be The Biggest Surprise for Russia in 2011?

New Years Fireworks at KremlinAs Russia sinks further into its extended holiday slumber, while the rest of the world returns to normal life, it might be fair to invite our Western experts to ruminate on what is lying in store for Russia in 2011. And more specifically, what might be the biggest surprises in this country's political life, economic and social development, foreign policy, science and culture? Let us lead with a few questions in each area, while leaving the experts the freedom to speculate.

Russian politics. As 2011 will see elections to the State Duma take place, in the direct run up to the presidential elections of 2012, it is logical to assume that electoral considerations will drive Russian politics in the year to come. Will the United Russia Party lose its constitutional majority (300 seats) in the Duma? Or even the simple majority of 226 seats? Will a rival political party emerge, which in coalition with another party could knock United Russia from its pedestal? What would that party be? Will a liberal party make it over the 7 percent electoral barrier and gain seats in the Duma, which this time around will be elected to a recently extended term of five years?

Will Putin and Medvedev announce who will run for President in 2012? What would be more surprising ­ Putin's return or a second term for Medvedev? Could they put forward a different third candidate? Will there be a strong challenge to them from someone else? (If so, who might that be?)

Will Russia face more ethnic strife and even civil disorder along the lines of recent riots in Moscow? Or will the ruling tandem manage to crush interethnic tensions?

Will Medvedev's efforts to root out corruption and reform law enforcement agencies bear fruit? If so, what are the most likely immediate results?

Economic development. Will Russia's economy continue growing in 2011 or will it sputter and slip into a depression? Will Russia face a budgetary crunch in 2011, due to increased social and infrastructure spending? Will Russia be able to start its long awaited transition from an oil and gas driven economy to an innovation economy as President Medvedev's modernization program finally moves into action? What regions of Russia will do best economically in 2011? How will the demographic situation shape up in Russia in 2011?

Foreign policy. Will the US-Russia reset survive 2011? Will it extend to more areas or will it remain locked in the arms control and nuclear non-proliferation domain? Will Russia enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2011?

Will Russia and the EU finally sign their Strategic Partnership Agreement, and will they switch to a visa-free regime? How will Russia-Polish relations fare in 2011?

Will Russia and Ukraine continue their bilateral reset or will they slide again into mutual recriminations and hostility over Ukraine's Western aspirations? Will Russia work with the West towards a settlement in Transdnestr, or will it seek to derail the process? What will Russia's policy be towards the new pro-Western government in Moldova? How will Russia deal with Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko in the year ahead? Will there be any improvement in Russia-Georgia relations, as Saakashvili prepares to leave the presidency for a newly empowered post of Prime Minister?

What will be the most significant scientific or cultural event in Russia in 2011?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA), San Francisco, CA:

Many of the possible surprises for Russia in 2011 mentioned in the Introduction are ­ upon scrutiny ­ not significant at all. Consider the highly unlikely entry of a "liberal" political party into the Duma. The true political consequences of such an event would be nearly nil.

A "liberal" party in Russia has no political niche to call its own. The far left is taken by the Communist Party (KPRF), the socialist-democratic niche contains A Just Russia, the centre-right is occupied by United Russia and further to the right sits the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). What political product, what program could a "liberal" party propose in Russia that is socially constructive and also unique, capable of giving a brand identity? What effective slogan, functionally equivalent to the "all power to the Soviets" of the communists in 1917 can an aspiring, new "liberal" party offer today? As they say "that train has already left the station..."

I use the word "liberal" in quote marks to denote that it applies to whichever grouping that claims to follow the very vague ideological agenda, called "liberalism."

On the other hand a very big ­ and unpleasant ­ surprise would be the emergence of a mass political movement espousing an agenda of chauvinism ­ claiming to defend the rights of the 80 percent of Russia's population who are ethnic Russians (add to these the kindred Ukrainians and Belarusians and you have 85 percent.) Many ethnic Russians feel that they are discriminated against and unfairly exploited; suppressing such claims is pointless and dangerous ­ what is needed is a calm and impartial analysis of the reality, and the execution of a plan to relieve the stress. It must be noted that ethnic tensions affect Russians vis-à-vis only two or three ethnic groups from the North Caucasus; Russians get along fine with over 175 of the 179 non-Russian nationalities that comprise about 20 percent of Russia's headcount. Again, one does not expect this big and nasty surprise in 2011 in Russia.

Economically and financially, Russia's growth will continue in 2011, barring a global economic crash, over which no Russian factor has any real control. The probability of such a crash is not high (the markets have already discounted the worst-case scenarios.) Russia's budget is on a multi-year planning cycle, so budgetary considerations for 2011 are already built in. No big surprises are expected there.

There are several "loose cannons' in the world today: Iran, Pakistan and North Korea seem to qualify for the description. Events in these political theatres may require diverse kinds of response from Russia's government and may become a challenge for the global community in 2011.

The amicable and productive resolution of Japan's claims on the Russian Kuril islands would be a very big surprise.

On-going initiatives in Russia ­ modernization, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the build-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2018 ­ will continue apace in 2011.

It is extremely silly to expect overnight results for modernization. Russia's extensive and very successful modernization under Emperor Alexander II started in 1856 and was still in progress in 1881, when terrorist revolutionaries, the ideological precursors of today's KPRF, murdered Alexander II. This is a span of 25 years, to which one must add decades of preparatory work (infrastructure development) by Alexander's father, the unjustly maligned Nicholas I.

Allowing for technological acceleration, one should expect substantial results from today's modernization program around 2014-2015 at the earliest. This timeline might not be pleasing to some among Russia's leaders and elite ­ but they only need to remember Gaidar's "Great Leap Forward" in the 1990s and its outcome... As the Italians say: "piano, piano, si va lontano," Or slow and steady wins the race.

Alexander Rahr, Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:

The biggest surprise in store for Russia in 2011 is that there is no surprise. The United States and the EU will face dramatic changes, not Russia.

Russia will continue to live on its energy exports, Russia will continue to "manage" its democracy, Russia will continue to build beneficial partnership relations with the EU, United States and the ASEAN.

The real changes in Russia will happen only at the end of this decade, by then Russia has to finalize its three-decade-long transition from communism to capitalism.

Russia in 2011 will neither become more liberal nor more authoritarian. United Russia will win the parliamentary elections and the liberal opposition will lack a leader. Extreme nationalism will be defeated in Russia by the authorities and Vladimir Putin is the most obvious candidate for the presidency in 2012.

Relations with other CIS countries will stay as they are: Russia will try to force them into closer integration and they will play out Russian interests against the West (as they have done for 20 years).

Relations between the West and Russia will neither improve nor deteriorate in 2011. The EU will promise Russia more access to its market and Russia will promise the same to the EU.

Iran will probably come closer to a nuclear weapon, unfortunately some nasty terrorist attacks in Russia and EU are expected, but in general things will stay as they are.

The repercussions from the financial crisis will be felt, probably more in the West than in Russia.

China, India and Brazil will continue to rise and strengthen their military capacities.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

In political life I seriously doubt that any party or even coalition of parties (which is even less likely) can unseat United Russia from its pedestal and control over the majority in the Duma. Who could form such a coalition? Fair Russia and the KPRF, or Fair Russia and the LDPR? Even the hypothetical possibility of such coalitions inspires only a sarcastic smile. The likelihood of a miraculous rebirth of a liberal party is no higher, and again it is quite difficult to see any current leader of the liberal forces (Nemtsov, Kasparov, Milov) in coalition with Sergei Mironov or Gennady Zyuganov.

There will be no serious changes in the Russian political landscape as long as Fair Russia and the KPRF retain their current leadership and follow their paths as only minor political forces. Although, in my opinion, the left side of the political spectrum is greatly underrepresented on all levels of power and it is not heard loudly enough in the country in general. The slogan "Less predatory capitalism and more civilized socialism!" may be very timely for Russia. Another chance of a potential shift in the political landscape could be the decision of Dmitry Medvedev to lead a new party, but again it is highly unlikely.

A tandem will stay in power even after 2012, with Vladimir Putin more and more playing a role similar to the one played by Deng Xiaoping, who is certainly more responsible for the success of China than any frontline leader of the country in the 1980s and 1990s. So, it will be a greater surprise for me if Vladimir Putin runs for the presidency again. Such an eventuality will become more likely only in the case of a war, or unrest in the country. Such a crisis may originate only in one area, and this is the North Caucasus. Any interethnic tensions in large Russian cities are unlikely to have such consequences, although the "national question" will be on the priority list in Moscow.

At the same time readers may have noticed that I used "a tandem" and not "the tandem." The most immediate results of Medvedev's "law on the police" may be the even greater alienation of law enforcement agencies from the people, due to its new name and some other mainly socio-economic factors.

The fight against corruption in the capital should serve as a litmus test on the ability of the president to handle this real threat to Russia, and at the same time as a lesson for all bureaucrats in the country. Just waiting until a point when Russian bureaucrats realize that they "must obey the law, not out of fear, but because violating it is indecent," is a very naïve sentiment and even a dangerous one.

My greatest surprise for 2011 could be any serious trial brought up against high ranking current or former officials in Moscow, due to the presidential discovery of "corruption on an unprecedented scale" in this city. Another big surprise could be presidential support for the proposal made by several deputies of the State Duma, in line with the UN's anti-corruption convention, that would confiscate property of dubious origin from officials.

The so-called modernization agenda will probably continue to be mainly associated with Skolkovo, and it is unlikely that it will produce any palpable results for the country in general. The real modernization should begin with improvements to the everyday lives of the people. They must see change, as happened in many previous Soviet decades, before leaders like Gorbachev came to power. I will bring only a few examples of how modernization and the people can come together, and whether it will be easy to judge about any success or failure. For example the serious modernization of transportation systems: new and quality roads, airplanes that are not scary to enter, better, faster trains and not only between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Another positive surprise could be the beginning of modernization of the Russian countryside and small towns where people should finally have warm running water in their houses. The whole country knows now (thanks to Vladimir Putin's interview) that Peter the Great was planning his plumbing, even at a time of war, but what prevents the Russian power holders from making people's dream a reality today, three hundred years later? Most of the necessary equipment must be manufactured in Russia and installed by the country's domestic workforce. The whole housing and utilities complex could serve as an excellent arena for modernization that could be felt and supported by the majority of Russian people.

Real modernization will work when it is based on the interests and needs of the Russian people. It should also stop and reverse the process of de-industrialization, developing in the country since the early 1990s. This danger was brought up again when we discovered last December that Russia can't even produce a de-icing fluid for its major airline and depends on imports from Germany. Is it not just a shame? Hopefully we will see less of surprises like that next year.

In foreign policy, with a few exceptions, President Dmitry Medvedev has scored much better, and most of the projects initiated last year should be continued in 2011. The reset with the United States should be brought up to a new level, providing opportunities for more and easier contacts between the two countries and their peoples. The intensification of business contacts and "people's diplomacy" should follow the official reset and the visits of governmental delegations. The Russian government rightly puts significant efforts into achieving a visa free regime with Europe, but has so far completely ignored the same issue with the United States. Of course, a visa free regime is not something that will appear in 2011, but for Americans to have to pay almost 200 dollars for a visa to visit Russia and vice versa is plain ridiculous and something that must be changed without delay.

The government of Russia should pay more attention to the fast modernizing Asia and open its eyes to the fact that China is already third in the number of patent applications, with 400 percent growth in this position since 2000.

Russia should continue to develop the Customs Union and single economic space with several CIS countries, paying serious attention to relations with Ukraine. Among many issues, these brotherly nations should develop a common position on Transdnestr. Russia and Ukraine must be ready to guarantee the rights of this unrecognized but de-facto existing state to self-determination, right up to its recognition as a new country on the map of Europe. Particularly, if the situation in Moldova continues to develop in the direction of gradual annihilation of such a country.

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