20 years under Putin: a timeline

OK: During the demonstrations, one of the things the creative class called for was honesty in politics.  It seems that people are fed up with the constant stream of lies coming from the political elite and politicians' promises that are never kept.

АА: I think that the demand was not only for political honesty, but for honesty in general. Everyone is tired of the lies, not just the creative class and not only in Russia.

OK: Are you referring to protest movements in other countries?

АА: Yes. 2011 started with the Arab Spring. Then we had dissident demonstrations in Southern Europe, followed by the fight to establish the Robin Hood tax in London, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., and the rise of pirate parties in Sweden and Germany. The year ended with mass protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow and in other Russian cities. This isn't a mere coincidence.

OK: Do you believe that in countries where the protest movements took place, the people were all demanding honesty?

АА: It seems to me that the 2008-09 economic crisis fundamentally changed the long-term economic climate. We are going to have to live in difficult economical conditions for a while. Various political systems in a number of countries all turned out to be useless under the new circumstances. Across the board,  government mechanisms started failing. These failures drove the demand for major changes. In many ways, 2011 resembled 1968, when a wave of protests swept the world.

Here is the real problem for Russian leaders: How do you combine Russia 1, Russia 2, and Russia 3 into a single country?

OK: Had anyone foreseen the 1968 protests?

АА: In fact, yes. Social contract theorists, especially John Rawls, a philosopher from Harvard who wrote A Theory of Justice, as well as American economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, authors of The Calculus of Consent and The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan.

OK: What was the global impact of the 1968 protests?

АА: Since 1968, many new political platforms have emerged and many value systems have changed. World leaders whose positions had been considered solid were forced to resign in the wake of the protests. Charles de Gaulle, the French president, who had led  his country out of Nazism and thwarted a domestic fascist plot, was forced to leave office in 1969, following the student strikes, in disgrace. In the USSR, August 1968 saw the first demonstrations in support of Czechoslovakia [which the Soviet Union had invaded that year--Ed.] American universities erupted in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. As a result, new ideas emerged about what is proper in politics and what is not. New values, Big Ecology, and all sorts of other things followed the protests.

OK: When you draw these historical parallels, are you also suggesting that such major shifts may take place now?

АА: They might. Shifts like these can take place every 20 years, and they are usually caused by globally-significant events. Let's take another example: 1989. It was the year of the collapse of the socialist system in Eastern and Central Europe and North Asia. This change was brought about by the dissolution of the bipolar world. I attribute the most recent changes in society to the 2008-09 economic crisis. Incidentally, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently published an article where he suggested that the time may have arrived for a new wave. The premonition of a major shift is already in the air.

OK: In your lectures and articles you often speak of the Russian path, which you say the country has been unable to get off of. Do you think that the shifts we have been discussing could help Russia get out of this rut?

АА: Global shifts in value systems can stimulate domestic changes. Russia is not the only country suffering from path dependence, a problem that was first described by Douglas North, a prominent American economist and Nobel prize winner. When it occurs, a country may try to leave its long-term trajectory and move to a higher level of development. Metaphorically speaking, the country wants to overcome gravitational forces and shift from the first cosmic velocity to the second one, which will allow it to reach the next level. Global statistical data shows that the majority of countries in world are on the lower trajectory. Only about 25 of them have managed to move to the higher one. Shifts like this are rare, and not every country actually cares about them.

OK: Who else seeks to advance besides Russia?

АА: Spain is a good example. It has been trying to solve the path dependence problem for three centuries. Although it has all the prerequisites to do so and had once been the center of a world empire, Spain has not been able to get its wish and join the elite club of world leaders. Every time Spain tries to take the leap, it slides back on its path, as if it has hit a ceiling.

Everyone is tired of the lies, not just the creative class, and not only in Russia. In many ways, 2011 resembled the tumultuous 1968.

OK: How can a country overcome its gravity?

АА: There is one interesting theory suggested by a very important book called Violence and Social Orders. This book is based on research conducted by Douglas North and two other prominent American academics – historian John Wallis and political scientist Barry Weingast. It was published a few years ago. This group  studied three cases (France, England, and the U.S.), in which the countries have managed to take leaps and push themselves to higher levels of development. The group came to the conclusion that successful development was only possible after three key problems had been resolved in each respective country and three threshold conditions had been reached. The first condition was that the elite stopped making exceptions for themselves and started coming to agreements on rules that would apply to everyone. The second one was that commercial, political, and civil organizations began to outlive their creators. The resignation of the leader did not lead to the death of an organization anymore. The final condition was that the elite began to control the state’s instruments of violence collectively, rather than distributing their influence by the sector: someone gets the army, others get the police, and the rest oversee special services. The important thing is that instruments of violence stopped being used in political fights. The U.S. managed to break through to the higher level only at the turn of the 20th century, winning the competition with Argentina. For a long time these two countries were neck and neck, but eventually Argentina failed to achieve the three threshold conditions and thus overcome gravity. It has been suffering from that failure ever since. This is the theory we are testing on various Russian and international studies.

OK: What is happening in Russia right now, if you were to analyze it through the prism of this theory?  How far away are we from reaching those three threshold conditions?

АА: I think that a certain demand for reaching these conditions has emerged. What were the protesters upset about? They protested not only against the lies, but also against abuses such as the flashing lights on some officials’ vehicles [which allow them certain privileges in traffic--Ed.]. Polls show that 80% of respondents in Russia want to abolish the use of flashing lights, even though they are not generally found outside of Moscow. These flashing lights were a symbol of the exceptions Russian elites create for their own advantage instead of making rules that apply to  everyone. It's a typical example of violating the first condition. As for the second condition, hardly any organization has managed to survive its leader in post-Soviet Russia.

Nevertheless, we can see that people are starting to call for management rotation, for new leaders that are capable of political decision-making. Such demands are coming from Russian internet communities and the demonstrators. The rotation of leaders needs to happen not only in political parties, civil organizations, and commercial companies, but also at large. As for, the third condition, the abuse of so-called «administrative resources» during the elections or in commercial competition has also come under fire. The protest against such activities signifies that the foundation for changing how defense systems are controlled has been laid.