Russia as friend, not foe
By Nicolai N Petro
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Rarely has Russia's leadership been so widely reviled in the West, yet rarely
has the West needed Russia's friendship more.
The most obvious reason the West needs Russia is the latter's abundance of
natural resources, which Western governments have for decades assumed would
always be at the disposal of their industries. Indeed, Europe has almost
learned to take its
dependence for granted, relying on its good fortune that, for the past three
centuries, the Russian elite has identified itself wholeheartedly with European
culture and values. The occasional voices that arose to call for a
reorientation eastward to Siberia, or southward to Central Asia, have never
been more than marginal political or cultural influences.
Until today, that is. Now that two-thirds of gross domestic product (GDP) in
the world is generated in the Asia-Pacific arena, and European and US elites
trumpet their increasing hostility toward Russia's economic and political
resurgence, it becomes hard for even such an ardent Europhile as President
Vladimir Putin to argue that his country's destiny perforce lies with Europe.
Translated into simple geopolitical terms, if the West cannot convince Russia
that it deserves a "special relationship", then over the next two decades China
and India, rather than Europe, will become the primary beneficiaries of
Russia's resource abundance, and the axis of global political and economic
development will shift accordingly.
The consequences of such shift for the West are not hard to imagine. It would
lead to the decline, first of Europe, and then inevitably of Europe's closest
ally, the United States. Ultimately, Russia's decision (and it is clearly its
to make) to align itself or not with the West will prove decisive in tipping
the scales in favor of the long-term prospects of modern Western civilization.
Given these stakes, the United States and Europe should strive harder for
Russia's friendship. More than a decade and a half after the collapse of the
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it is high time to set aside hostilities
and to confront the main obstacle to achieving true friendship - an inordinate
and often irrational fear of Russia.
Fears have both objective and subjective sources, intertwined in such a way
that it is often difficult to tell them apart. As a result, the subjective
components of our fear linger well beyond their objective reality; think, for
example, of how often as adults people still react viscerally to the things
they feared as children.
So it is with Russia today. Compared with the USSR of 30 years ago, Russia's
decimated army, which even with recent increases spends no more than 5% of the
US military budget, is no military threat to the North Atlantic Treaty
Moreover, Russia's overarching economic and political ambition since 1991 has
not been global conquest, but integration into the global market economy
(incidentally, making Moscow the world's fifth-largest stock market). And yet
despite having undergone changes that would have been inconceivable a
generation ago, many Western pundits seem to fear Russia even more than they
feared the USSR, and routinely compare Putin to Joseph Stalin, Benito
Mussolini, even Adolf Hitler!
Such an intense level of fear must be linked to self-image - to a cultural
identity so deeply ingrained that many in the West simply cannot imagine
parting with it. That cultural identity, based on separating Russia from the
West, served the West quite well during the Cold War by bolstering its
psychological defenses against an implacable ideological foe. Now, however, it
is hampering our ability to see the profound changes that have occurred in
Russian society, and we must let it go.
Among the many factors that shape perception of the world around us, the mass
media play a singularly important role. Sociologists tell us that we see people
as "informed" when their opinions match the categories established by the
media. When one challenges these categories, therefore, one literally runs the
risk of being seen as taking positions that are "against all common sense".
In reporting about Russia, we see all too often that as reality diverges from
our preconceptions, media reports serve to reinforce our stereotypes. The sad
truth is that the more negative a story is about Russia, the more we know it to
be true - a toxic axiom that has resulted in a surreal picture of contemporary
Russia. Here are just a few of the choicest examples.
Western reporting about Chechnya has focused on the devastation of war and
terrorism. This remains the primary focus today, even though more than 7,500
rebels have laid down their arms, terrorist attacks have fallen to almost nil,
Russian military casualties went from 1,400 in 2000 to 28 in 2005 and, last
August, Russia disbanded the operational headquarters of its military
counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus and transferred security
functions to the local Chechen militia.
Since welcoming back most of what were once nearly a million refugees, more
than 30,000 new businesses have sprung up. Today there are regions of Grozny
where real-estate prices are higher than in Moscow. New political and financial
institutions are functioning routinely throughout the republic.
This is not to suggest that all is now fine in the North Caucasus -
unemployment is still widespread; many kidnappings remain unresolved. Still, it
is clearly a distortion to pretend that there has not been dramatic progress in
this region in the past five years. Russia has won its war against the Chechen
rebels and it is safe to say that most people in the West don't even know it.
The legal system
Reporting about the Russian legal system is full of tales of corruption, murder
and political pressure, and while these do exist, they have become the
exception rather than the norm under Putin.
Reading the Western press one would never know that since Putin became
president, citizens' use of courts to redress grievances has risen sevenfold,
and that 71% of plaintiffs win their cases against the government.
Largely unbeknownst to us in the West, dramatic changes are transforming the
Russian legal landscape. In 2006 alone, laws were passed that virtually
eliminate closed judicial proceedings, expand the rights of defendants to call
witnesses on their behalf, specify that government officials must respond to a
citizen's requests within 30 days, create a nationwide juvenile court system,
and add significant new privacy protections for individuals.
Over the next five years, nearly US$2 billion will be injected into the
judicial system to enhance its openness and public accessibility. The Russian
Association of Lawyers has received government funding to establish a
nationwide network of support centers where citizens can turn for free legal
Admittedly, these changes do not guarantee that justice will always triumph in
Russian courts, but they are a clear sign that things are moving in the right
direction, which is not the impression one gets from the Western media.
Discussions of the Russian media typically imply that state control is total,
when in fact there are more private media in Russia today than at any time in
In 1997 there were just over 21,000 registered periodicals, virtually no
electronic media, and just under 100 television companies. More than half of
all media were owned by the state. A decade later, there are more than 58,000
periodicals, 14,000 electronic media, and 5,500 broadcasting companies. The
state's share in the newspaper and journal market in 2006 was estimated to be
less than 10%, while its share in electronic media, which today reach 25
million people, is even smaller. Today it is not the Russian state but foreign
companies that own shares in more than half of all Russian broadcasting
Critics, however, have zeroed in on the one area of the media where the state's
presence still predominates - national television. Through its control of seats
on the board of the joint stock companies that control the media corporations
that own particular stations, it is argued, the government exerts undue
influence on national television channels. What does the evidence actually
Last month, Medialogia (www.medialogia.ru), Russia's leading private media
research firm, released its fourth annual survey. It shows that in 2006
pro-government parties received 54.9% of all the air time devoted to major
political parties, up from 45.4% in 2005. The survey also breaks down how often
parties were discussed positively and negatively on seven national television
Last year the pro-Putin United Russia Party was mentioned positively more than
twice as often as all other parties combined. This large preponderance,
however, is a bit misleading. United Russia may indeed mentioned far more often
than any other party, but not always favorably. A direct comparison shows that
positive reports about United Russia outnumbered negative ones 58% to 42%, a
modest 16-point margin.
Medialogia's detailed statistics also demolish the myth that Putin dominates
national television and allows no critical reporting. In 2006, for example,
Putin garnered more than a third of total mentions among the top 10 most
popular figures on national television, while his ratio of positive to negative
reporting was just over 3:1.
Is this too high or too low? Russian television viewers seem to feel it is just
about right. In 2005, two-thirds said they had seen no change in television
coverage of Putin and that he was covered about the right amount. Moreover, by
nearly 4-1, they said opposition parties can freely express their views on
national television and in national newspapers. Interestingly, even 56% of
Communist Party voters agreed.
These results will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the variety of
media options available to most Russians. These include local television and
radio stations, half of which are in private hands, the private Ren-TV network
that reaches roughly 113 million people in the Commonwealth of Independent
States through its 406 commercial stations, as well as cable and satellites
channels that are available to about 20% of the population nationwide.
To sum up, under Putin, for the first time in modern Russian history,
independent media have become profitable. The typical Russian media
conglomerate today is a mixture of foreign investors, Russian banks and local
governments. If a local project goes national, as in the case last year of St
Petersburg's Fifth Channel, the shares owned by local governments are often
bought out by private investors. Russia already has more private media outlets
than any other European country, and as long as advertising revenues continue
to rise 15% and more each year (87% annually on the Internet), privatization
will continue its unstoppable advance.
Democracy and civil society
Surely one of the most disingenuous claims about Putin is that he has
undermined democracy by abolishing gubernatorial elections. Here is how the
process actually works. Parties that have won seats in a regional legislature
may submit names for governor to a presidential commission, which reviews them
and makes its recommendations to the president. The president then forwards his
nomination to the local parliament for ratification. Unless there is a serious
objection, the candidate proposed by the head of the party that was victorious
in the previous elections is typically nominated, a practice that is expected
to become legally binding on the president this year.
Critics say this violates the separation of powers enshrined in the Russian
constitution. The Constitutional Court, however, reviewed this argument at the
end of 2005 and disagreed because "the final decision on appointment ... is
taken specifically by the legislative body". The Venice Commission, the Council
of Europe's advisory body on legal matters, and the Congress of Local and
Regional Authorities of Europe subsequently conducted their own reviews and
found that the new system conforms with European norms.
But while the media's attention has focused on the appointment of governors,
there has been almost no mention of the dramatic expansion of local
self-government that Putin introduce simultaneously. Last year, tens of
thousands of new civic communities began functioning independently of state
authorities, leading to an increase in civic initiative and philanthropy.
As a spokesman from the Siberian Civic Initiative put it: "Many Russia watchers
are operating under the impression that the environment in Russia for NGOs
[non-governmental organizations] that receive support from international donors
has deteriorated during the last year. It has, in fact, improved for those that
have expertise in building democracy from the ground up because they are in
demand by government departments. Government is saying to NGOs, 'Help us, we do
not know how to do this,' and NGOs are generating income by providing their
And speaking of NGOs, while the view that they are under threat has been widely
popularized, no major media outlet has bothered to explain how their number has
swelled from 100,000 when Putin took office to more than 600,000 today. Western
financial assistance is certainly not the key, since foreign donations
constitute only 8.4% of all donations to civic organizations. Could it be that
the severely criticized NGOs legislation of December 2005 has actually proved
One could go on and on, but these examples should suffice to provide a sense of
the hurdles that even the most thoughtful and well-informed media consumers
face when trying to understand the changes that have taken place in Russia
since Putin took office. I will not even mention Russia's economic miracle -
eight straight years of economic growth that have led to a fivefold increase in
GDP, except to highlight one telling point. It astonishes people to learn that
return on foreign investment in Russia is an order or magnitude higher than in
China, and that foreign companies that invested in Russia have outperformed
those that invested in China every year since 2001.
The fact that China is widely regarded as a more attractive investment
opportunity than Russia despite yielding much lower profits, having more
corruption and far less political freedom, and facing enormous future political
uncertainties testifies amply to the role that media-fed cultural
preconceptions play in relations with Russia.
Russia as part of the West
If the main obstacles in this relationship derive from a profound discomfort
with the notion that Russia is rapidly becoming just like us in the West, then
the fundamental task before us is learning how to envisage Russia as part of
It sounds simplistic and naive to say that hostility toward Russia is rooted in
a mental image. How hard can it be to change an image? Many scholars have
shown, however, that the "invention of tradition", to use British historian and
author Eric Hobsbawm's felicitous phrase, has always set the terms for what is
accepted political discourse. People have no problem embracing a completely
invented tradition or history, so long as it is reinforced by a consistent
media message. That is why, realistically, we cannot expect Western perceptions
about Russia to change any time soon.
But that does not mean such efforts are bootless. Regardless of what some may
wish to believe, Russia has already evolved so far from the Soviet Union that
the conceptual struggle to preserve a link between the two is destined to fail.
The only question is whether we in the West will be able to change our cultural
narrative about Russia sooner, at a lesser cost to our relations, or later, at
a far greater cost.
We can take some comfort in the fact that this has all happened before.
Reflecting on how dramatically the world had changed since his youth, British
historian Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-79) recalled:
In the days of my
own childhood, it was still the English against the French, these latter being
the traditional enemy. I can remember even now the schoolbook which said that
the English owed all their freedom to their kinship with the Germans, for
liberty went back to the Teutons in their primeval forests. The Reformation,
the emancipation of religion, came from Martin Luther, and Germany in any case
had long enjoyed federal government, state rights and even free, independent,
self-governing cities, like Hamburg.
The antithesis to all this was to be found in the Latin countries. I still
remember how it was all spelled out: Italy stood for the Papacy, Spain had had
the Inquisition, while France, twice over, if you please, had chosen to live
under Napoleonic dictatorships, an evil which, in my young days, had as yet had
no parallel in other countries.
Then, as now, success lies in
recognizing that our former enemy's cultural heritage is not just similar to
our own, it in fact is our own. Only when we recognize this fundamental
truth will we be able to rewrite the script of "Western democracy" to include
Russia, just as we once rewrote it to include Germany and Japan.
Nicolai N Petro served as the US State Department's special assistant for
policy on the Soviet Union under president George H W Bush, and now teaches
international politics at the University of Rhode Island.
(Copyright 2007 Nicolai N Petro.)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have
Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.