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The Moscow Times, May 13, 2004

Russia's Liberal Project: A Political Obituary

By Stephen Schmida

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Western engagement in Russia has been framed by a single paradigm: Support the efforts of the westernized elite in Russia to reform the country into a full-fledged member of Europe and the West. If Western donors and partners simply provided enough human, financial, political and technical resources to the "right" liberal reformers, they would create a broader base of support for liberal values among the general population. This, in turn, would help anchor democratic and market principles in Russia.

The paradigm, based on similar transitions in Eastern Europe, became known as the Liberal Project, and it had a lot going for it. After all, it was a fundamentally optimistic paradigm and it suggested that the West could have a major guiding role in transforming Russia. Many, both in Russia and the West, accepted the tenets of the Liberal Project almost without question. Its logic has underpinned almost all Western engagement and assistance in Russia for more than a decade.

The problem is that the Liberal Project never took root in Russia. The catastrophic drop in living standards that accompanied economic liberalization in the early '90s eroded much of the optimism that ordinary Russians had for the reform process. Liberal reformers were thus discredited in the eyes of the general public almost from the beginning. The war in Chechnya and the chaotic kleptocracy of the Yeltsin years served to further undermine legitimacy at the popular level. Still, throughout the late '90s, Russia's political elite continued to pay lip service to the Liberal Project even as it was searching for a new paradigm. Thus, the West continued to believe that though it might face some significant challenges in Russia, the project would ultimately succeed.

A new model emerged in 2001-02 with the consolidation of the Putin administration. While initially mouthing the rhetoric of the Liberal Project, President Vladimir Putin and his supporters developed and set forth a new paradigm for Russia's development that named the state as the central organizing force of political and economic life in the country.

The statist paradigm itself is quite simple: The state will annul many basic rights of citizens in return for economic growth, restoring Russia's dignity abroad and bringing order to society. It will allow free enterprise so long as it serves the defined interests of the state. In historical terms, there is very little new to the statist paradigm; indeed, it is merely the latest iteration of a model that has guided Russia's development for several centuries.

Though it was clear to those living in Russia that the Liberal Project had been dead for some time, it took the recent round of elections for obituaries to appear in newspapers in Western capitals. Since December, there has been much hand-wringing and finger-pointing among politicians and pundits alike. The tired questions of "Who lost Russia?" and "What is to be done?" are again being rehashed. Yet despite the obituaries, the debate on Russia is still largely framed in Liberal Project terms.

Western and Russian pundits blame the reformist Yabloko and SPS parties for their failures and are now looking for a way to reanimate them as some form of liberal Frankenstein. Similarly, foundations and Western assistance agencies are looking for ways to help NGO activists engage the new rubber-stamp parliament, even though it is abundantly clear that all legislative questions will be resolved long before a bill is introduced to the State Duma.

As Will Rogers once said, "When riding a dead horse it is usually best to dismount." Clearly, it is time to dismount the Liberal Project and to take a hard look at the new agenda. Whether we agree with its tenets or not, it is time that policymakers in Western capitals recognize the new statist paradigm. Rather than assuming that Russia is progressing toward the Liberal Project pantheon of democracy and free markets, we need to recognize that it is settling in for a long and perhaps difficult authoritarian period, where the state will dominate economic and political life.

Under the new paradigm, Western foreign policy toward Russia will need to shift considerably. The rhetoric will have to shift to reflect the fact that Russia is unlikely to join the Western family of nations anytime soon. While Russia and the West may periodically cooperate on international issues, it is unlikely that there will be any stimulus to forge a deeper political relationship. Indeed, because many of the tenets of the statist paradigm stand in contradiction to the Western canon about political pluralism, Russia's domestic policies are likely to chafe against Western values. On the economic front, Putin's budding economic nationalism suggests that foreign economic involvement will probably be limited during this period, with the state retaining direct or indirect control of the "commanding heights" of the economy.

Should the demise of the Liberal Project spell the end for Western assistance to Russia? I would argue that it should not for two reasons: the first moral and the second practical.

The moral argument for continuing to provide assistance to Russia is that the West has an obligation to continue to provide support to those in civil society it helped foster under the Liberal Project. To abandon these people now just as a new authoritarianism is emerging would be wrong. On a more practical level, Russia's strategic geography and nuclear arsenal mean that the country will remain an important player internationally. In the absence of deep economic, political or social ties with the West, cooperation assistance is one of the few vehicles for maintaining significant engagement.

While foreign assistance to Russia should not end, it will need to adapt to the statist paradigm if it is to be effective.

We must abandon the reformist model that underpins U.S. and EU assistance programs in Russia. We must focus much more on maintaining those civil society institutions that remain and building horizontal networks of groups and associations. Rather than focusing on reform, we should encourage civil society to build a larger constituency within the population. In doing so, these institutions and networks can serve as incubators for civil society leaders who cannot have a significant impact in the present environment, but could serve as important catalysts for change in the future.

Such a strategy is not new. Indeed, it was used to considerable effect by German foundations in their assistance to civil society actors in Spain and Portugal in the '60s and '70s. By supporting small "lifeboats" of civil society, the Germans helped incubate an entire generation of liberal political leaders, who came to the fore after the fall of the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal at the end of the '70s.

The emergence of the statist paradigm in Russia will undoubtedly cause strains in its relations with Europe and the United States. However, it is important for policymakers to recognize that those strains should not result in disengagement from Russia. It is crucial that the West continue to try to expand and deepen its relationship with Russia.

Although Russia's hopes of joining the family of Western democracies in the near future may be dead, we should also recognize that the statist paradigm may well be the subject of a political obituary itself one day.

Stephen Schmida, Moscow regional director of the Eurasia Foundation, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.


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The Moscow Times, May 13, 2004

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