Democracy and growth: Russia’s great challenge

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

At this particular historic moment, the urgency of the economic assimilation of new natural and human resources worldwide is somehow obscured by the global crisis and by the necessity of reforming the global financial system.

The situation will change without fail and pretty soon. Prices for industrial materials will crawl upward again, and the urgency of finding and rapidly utilizing new territories and new raw material sources will again become obvious.

For Russia, with its wide stretches of unused land and fabulous natural riches, the right thing to do is to meet this new situation prepared, such as with projects and initiatives in the field of international cooperation directed toward recolonization of Siberia and the Russian Far East. They certainly should be worked out well in advance — of course, with compulsory consideration of the needs and wants of potential partners. The world situation does not favor procrastination and lack of political will.

It is equally clear that, if the scenario for mass-scale joint actions in the spacious territories behind the Ural mountains will not be considered and written in Moscow, this will inevitably provoke attempts to do such a design job elsewhere.

In the closing days of last year, Russian rulers were sending to the public vague signals hinting on their readiness for a dialogue about eventual democratization of the political and social system. Thus, it seems to be the right moment to recall the giant potential of democratic principles and institutions.

According to modern anthropology, it is “power” (“state”) which serves as an agent of change, while “people” (“masses”) represent rather a conservative force, a safeguarding device (for tradition, national heritage, etc.). However, it is “people” that puts forward individuals who will incorporate the concept of “power.”

That is why democracy has become so essential. It allows to select (“elect”) and bring into power the agents of change — deserving individuals who are better prepared for government jobs.

New times demand continuous changes, both in domestic politics and in regard to international actions — in order to open new creative potential of the society and new opportunities for human initiative.

It is thanks to democracy, however imperfect, that societies can become more open and just, and through this more viable and powerful. Vice versa, the lack of democracy breads and perpetuates harmful monopoly of power and thus bears the threat of stagnation and corruption.

If the “power” does not grow up to expectations, the “people” should be able to correct its human stock in due course with minimal political crises and without destructive social upheavals. When the need of change, of continuous modernization, is perceived, the society should be able to act accordingly and to pump new blood into government structures.

This should happen on all levels and in all territorial subdivisions. That is why the “power vertical” cannot be regarded as an adequate answer to the current challenges. Russia obviously needs a new tour of decentralization in the manner undertaken by President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Judging by the opening decade of the new century, lack of freedom, monopolization of power and rigidity of political thinking are nowadays especially perilous. Look at Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Remember recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Think of Thailand and Venezuela, or of Kirgizia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.

Also for Russia, because of its very specific historical and geographic situation, a bold and continuous search for new solutions becomes absolutely necessary and mandatory — as long as the federal foundations of Russia’s Eurasian statehood remain solid and the sovereignty over natural resources and highly dispersed territories stays intact.

There is, however, at least one territorial case in which Russia’s sovereignty looks questionable. We have in mind the extremely painful (for Japan) territorial issue concerning four islands to the north of Hokkaido — the “Southern Kurils” on the Russian maps and the “Northern territories” in the Japanese political parlance.

I believe that it would suit great Russia well to be more constructive and to show political wisdom, magnanimity and good will in resolving this sensitive issue in the spirit of justice and fairness. It would be much better than to continuously display indifference toward the neighboring people’s interests and aspirations — a policy bordering on conscious “torpedoing” the very promising opportunities for normal, long-term and big-scale cooperation with one of the three economic leaders of the modern world.

Finding a just and effective compromise in this not-so-easy case could demonstrate both the constructive character of the geo-economic approach to international disputes and disagreements and the considerable mutual benefits stemming from it.

It is also worthwhile to note that Japan represents a natural counterweight to mighty and rapidly growing China — a fact which may turn out to be of major importance in the context of future economic rivalry in the world in general and in East Asia, in particular.

To be a “dog in the manger” cannot, by definition, bring any international popularity (only questionable populist “success”). It applies both to the territorial issue and — even more so — to the outlook of wide multinational cooperation in Siberia and in the Russian Far East.

I believe that it is much more far-seeing (and also safer) for Russia to display hospitality by opening doors to some strong and — eventually — highly motivated partners thus creating beneficial opportunities for itself and for others than to stubbornly preserve the futile status quo.

It seems appropriate to note that, in this particular historic case, empty declarations will not do the trick. To exclude geopolitical threats and be able to reap rich harvest from a joint mass-scale recolonization endeavor, Russia must change its mental stance and some political practices — as to become suitable for gradual economic “twinning” with the most advanced industrial, or rather postindustrial, nations.

It would be wrong to overlook the geo-economic foundations of international relations already being forced out of the traditional empire-minded geopolitics — at least within the vast and growing area of the economically developed world.

Although the recent and current stormy events in several Muslim countries with their authoritarian regimes have shown very considerable strength in geopolitical factors and may have created the appearance that the stake on geoeconomics is somehow premature, it is not more than an outward appearance.

In the modern Russian history being made right now, two imperatives — that of real and radical democratization and that of recolonization of the vast land stretching behind the Urals — coincide and must be dealt with simultaneously.

On the one hand, it makes the situation especially difficult and complicated. On the other, it opens before our country unprecedented vistas for economic and social progress in the 21st century.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, in 1994-2007.