20 years under Putin: a timeline

OK: Do you think that the Russian political elite will actually make the effort of effecting these changes?

АА: As I've said, changing the top leadership in the country is not a threshold condition for changing the country's path. Sooner or later top officials are bound to leave office. That's not enough. It’s important that rotation takes place everywhere: in the opposition, in civil organizations, in business.



OK: In the mean time, rotation of leaders in Russia remains a sheer formality.

АА: I don’t think the problem is that Putin is going to become the next president, or that Medvedev will be the Prime Minister. The essential thing is how both of them will deal with the rift that's appeared in Russian society. During the electoral season of 2011-12, we saw the birth of a Russia-1 and Russia-2. The terms Russia-1 and Russia-2 were introduced by Natalia Zubarevich, a leading Russian regional geographer. Russia-1 is comprised of large cities, which have a population of more than one million, where people live in accordance with European values, aspire to modernization, including political modernization, and demand a better quality of life. Russia-2 is the industrial country of the cities with a population of 200-400,000, where basic necessities and stability are the key demands. This is the country that voted for Putin, seeing him as the guardian of their stability who would protect them from the “horrors” of the 1990s. But there’s also a Russia-3, the country of nearly-abandoned villages and small cities. Here is the real problem for Russian authorities: how do you combine all three parts in one territory? I can only dream that Russia-1 and Russia-2 would start talking to each other and come to an agreement on what to do next and how to save Russia-3. This would demand the formation of a  horizontal social contract and the democratization of the political regime. Political leaders would be forced to find peaceful solutions to Russia's problems that would benefit everyone.

OK: Why do you conflate ending path dependence with the idea of the social contract?

АА: If you look at world history, you will see that countries that embraced the idea of the social contract  had breakthroughs. For instance, the Netherlands of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Dutch scientist Hugo Grotius wrote about the social contract only a decade before the Dutch Revolt and a hundred years later, the Netherlands had become the the country that led the world.  In the 18th century, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes continued the exploration of the social contract in England--after which that country too made a leap, and for several centuries became the most dynamic and progressive in the world. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the messenger of the French Revolution, provided a similar foundation for France. Around the same time, American philosopher George Mason wrote about the social contract in the U.S. The essence of this contract is in meeting the three threshold conditions I mentioned above. The idea is replacing individual agreements on exceptions with social agreements on common rules.

OK: Returning to the current situation in Russia. You are saying that the demand for specific changes in government, the demand for modernization, has indeed appeared among the creative class and in society at large. But the the vertical power structure in Russia cannot allow changes like this to come from the below, let alone to permit the drawing of a social contract. The current regime is completely incapable of modernizing the country, although they have been speaking of nothing but for the past four years.

АА: Well, I don’t think that it is possible to modernize a country in four years. Modernization can take as long as 50 years.  It’s a good thing that we are not on square one. In Russia, the first attempts at modernization came before the times of Peter the Great. Czar Aleksei Mikhailovich and Princess Sophia were the first ones to try it.

OK: It is amazing to me, how long the country has been trying to reform itself. Why do you think it always fails?

АА: It's because of the path problem. If a country does not have any other powerful institutions, modernization is created by individual authorities or the state. What is the state? It’s an organization with the competitive advantage of being able to use force. What does the state use when it attempts institute modernization? Its capacity for violence. The government begins mobilizing resources, moving them around various sectors. As a result, the resources lose their value. This kind of modernization usually ends in the disruption of the human potential or country's resources, and cannot be reversed. This is the way modernization has taken place throughout Russian history. The only exceptions, in my opinion, were the Great Reforms of Aleksander II, which included reforms of the military, landowning, and serfdom. And, perhaps, the reforms instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev.

OK: Clearly, Medvedev is no Aleksander II.

АА: It is too early to assess the results of Medvedev’s modernization. There have been some changes and there might be more. But here is what I think is the problem. I happen to preside over a committee of independent specialists that consults the Presidential Commission for Modernization. In our discussions, we have come to a unanimous conclusion. We believe that before there can be modernization in the economy, it’s crucial to modernize the social and cultural spheres. Modernization begins in the mind, in the prevalent value system. A poem by Vladimir Kornilov, who passed away in 2002, is often quoted online. It goes like this:


They thought the system had to change
So that was what they changed
And now they're three times poorer
And they're three times as angry.

And it ends with,

Just one thing for another
And property for rights
When what they should have done
First, is to change themselves.

To me, this seems very accurate.