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A Socratic Dialogue

September 21, 2012 - Example Author - Books and Reviews

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Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West's Response. By: Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood. Publisher: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 2011.

This review originally appeared in New Eastern Europe Issue 2/2012.

Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood are no strangers to the community of Russia watchers. Shevtsova, a Russian national currently with the Carnegie Moscow Centre, has been a keen and engaged observer of Russia’s domestic politics and her country’s foreign relations for more than two decades. Andrew Wood was first posted to the Soviet Union as a diplomat in 1964 and served five years as Her Majesty's Ambassador to Russia (1995-2000). Both are prolific writers: Lilia Shevtsova has written a number of books about leaders and trends which have shaped the last two decades of Russia's history – some of these publications, such as Yeltsin's Russia or Putin's Russia, have already become classics. Andrew Wood's policy papers on Russia's domestic and foreign policy, written in his capacity as an associate fellow of Chatham House, belong to the core output of this think tank’s Russia and Eurasia programme.

The authors have known each other for some time and have now joined forces to produce Change or Decay: Russia's Dilemma and the West's Response. A book-length dialogue on how Russia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union and the implications for the country itself as well as the rest of the world, is as solid as any of the authors’ individual work. Change or Decay is not just the title of their book; as both authors show in their candid and sometimes sparking conversation, this is also the fundamental choice Russia has been faced with for the past twenty years. Shevtsova and Wood agree that successive leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev have contributed much more towards the latter than the former. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continues to lose tens of billions of dollars in capital flight (more than $80 billion in 2011) and is regularly called “not-free” in international democracy indexes such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World. Between 2005 and 2010, 41 journalists have been killed and 344 injured. Without major reform, they argue (and this reviewer agrees), Russia’s decay will continue.

It was Socrates who famously introduced the dialectic method of inquiry, breaking down the problem into a series of questions not only to draw individual answers but also to distil fundamental insight into the discussed issues. Some may find the dialogue-style of the book difficult to follow, especially in the beginning. But what better way is there to explore Russia’s multiple contradictions and plurality of views and interpretations of its history? The book tells the story of Russia spanning more than two decades, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to a discussion of who would sit in the Kremlin after the March 2012 elections. The dialogue between Shevtsova and Wood goes beyond a mere description of historical events – their conversation is also about unfulfilled hopes and what remains twenty years after Russia's re-emergence onto the world map. Russians first pinned their hopes on Boris Yeltsin, who turned out to be weaker than some would have thought and less democratic than many would have liked him to be. After all, as Shevtsova points out, it was Yeltsin who laid the foundations of today’s system of centralised and personalised power. Putin managed to persuade many of his co-patriots as well as a large portion of the western audience that he is a real economic reformer and that progress was possible even if it came at the cost of the concentration of power, deepening of the country’s dependence on energy resources, and tightening of the political screws. Not long ago, then-President Medvedev, hand-picked by Putin, produced a pressing call for modernisation which led many to believe that the regime's determination to modernise was real. Yet most of the hopes these leaders inspired remain unfulfilled to this day.

The question of whether things could have gone differently reappears throughout the book: what options did the Russian elite have and did they choose the best ones? What influence did the West have on the developments in Russia and was this influence used wisely? Could and should western leaders have acted differently and could they have done more to help steer Russia towards a different, possibly more democratic course? These questions, and the answers offered by the two authors, are far from being purely theoretical “what if?” questions. With thousands of people gathering on the streets of Moscow to demand free and fair elections, the West again faces the question today of how to (re)engage Russia and its society rather than with just those who sit in the Kremlin.

Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood go to great length to undo stereotypes about Russia’s history and answer some of these questions hoping that lessons can be learned and mistakes be avoided in the future. The book makes interesting reading for a number of reasons but it is worth mentioning at least two. Firstly, for anyone interested in where Russia stands today, Shevtsova and Wood’s discussion about the evolution of Russia’s political regime over the past twenty years is a very useful guide: it engagingly explains where the challenges to the current political system come from and why they are unlikely to go away unless the system itself changes. Imitation of democracy may have brought Russia more legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and the West. Yet as the authors rightly argue, by choosing the “easy” options – i.e. faking democracy rather than exposing themselves to be challenged by their political opponents in free and fair elections or relying on natural resources rather than diversifying Russia’s economy – Russia’s political leaders have built a system which is unsustainable. “When the shell is empty, it stays empty,” Shevtsova says about Medvedev, although this also applies to the Russian political system in general.

Secondly, the book asks a number of essential questions about western policy towards Russia; questions which many in the West would prefer to ignore. The authors state their case very clearly: while they place the responsibility for Russia’s historical path fully on the shoulders of the Russian political class and the country’s intellectuals, they argue that the West should not stand aside and watch. The Russian ruling elite “depends to a degree on the placatory positions of western politicians and experts in order to sustain the current system”.

However, it is precisely in the parts of the dialogue on the West’s approach to Russia where some readers’ expectations may remain half-fulfilled. While both authors are very persuasive when they describe western policy towards Russia, including its (many) shortcomings, they offer much smaller doses of a prescription for what the West should do to aid Russia’s democratic transformation. Short-term pragmatism or a purely interest-based approach is not going to work. Shevtsova and Wood argue that the West's strategic agenda towards Russia must also embrace values. They also propose that conditionality becomes an equally integral part of western relations with Moscow and argue that a piecemeal approach, i.e. focusing on concrete possibilities such as Russia’s entry into the OECD rather than on grand designs, would serve the objective of Russia’s democratic transformation better than hard-core realism or idealism. Although few would disagree with these recommendations, others (including this reviewer) might point out that this more hard-nosed, piecemeal approach has already become a more or less established part of many European Union countries’ policy towards Russia, including those such as Poland or Germany.

The authors seem to have somehow naturally divided the roles they play in this Socratic dialogue. Shevtsova is one of the best incarnations of Russia’s liberal thinking and her sharp and pressing analysis excels in debunking the realities of today's Russia and its relations with the West. She asks tough questions about the failures of the EU's “let's pretend” policy towards Moscow and questions the contribution of the US reset policy to the improvement of the political situation in Russia (or lack of thereof). Skilled in both diplomacy and business, Andrew Wood brings a pragmatic and nuanced view which adds flavour to the debate. The outcome is a synergy that deserves to be read by all those hungry for knowledge about where today’s Russia comes from and what path it may embark on in the future.

Jana Kobzova is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the coordinator of its Wider Europe programme.

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