While Russian society is becoming more Westernized, the Kremlin is becoming more assertive in its dealings towards the West, which it views as competing for power in ‘its neighborhood’ and threatening its national interests. To understand how the West can improve cooperation with Russia, Carnegie Europe and the European Policy Centre co-sponsored an expert panel who suggested the West should begin by focusing on Russia’s economic interests.

Changing Russia

Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, presented his recently published book Getting Russia Right, which, attempts to give a more holistic view of Russia. While most books concentrate on Russia’s political regime, Trenin argues that the country is defined by much more than just “hard politics”. Important social, economic, and cultural developments are transforming Russian society, which is not “owned” by President Vladimir Putin, despite Western perceptions.

Much has changed since the glasnost and perestroika era, and labeling Russia as the “Soviet Union 2.0” is not appropriate, said Trenin. Capitalism and property rights are embedded in the economy, and globalization and Western culture have found their way into Russian society. These are the processes that will determine Russia’s future and cannot be stopped by any political force. Indeed, democracy development is influence by socio-economic developments to far greater extent than by political parties.

Rise fo the Middle Class

Every year, the number of people earning more than US$350 a month increases by five million, and this is the group that will eventually own the country’s political process. Mr. Trenin said this growing population will act as a counterbalance to the Kremlin’s tendency toward centralized authoritarian power, reshuffle Russia’s political landscape, and have defining influence on domestic and foreign policies.

Trenin emphasized that Russia is not a failed democracy: contemporary Russia is no less democratic than it was in the 1990s, although there may have been more freedom a decade ago. This is not the paradox it may seem, because there is a clear distinction between freedom and democracy: The former relates to personal rights, the latter to political rights. However, Russia still has a long way to go towards genuine democracy.

Although the Kremlin views the West as a threat to its national interests, Russia still sees its Western neighbors as a model of how it would like to develop.

Challenges to Russia's Resurgence

Matt Kaminski, of the Wall Street Journal Europe, criticized some aspects of the Kremlin’s behavior and performance. First, its growing authoritarianism could create greater instability once President Putin’s term of office ends. The regime’s frequent attacks on its opposition have revealed how weak the ruling party really is.

Secondly, the number of people infected with HIV is increasing dramatically, which combined with declining health services is having a negative impact on the country’s demographics.

Finally, Russia’s seemingly strong economy is only sustained by high global oil prices, calling into question whether the country can retain its stability if oil prices fall.
Dov Lynch, Senior Advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General in Vienna, described the significant political and economic reforms that have taken place in Russia over the last decade, making the country unrecognizable from ten years ago.

Russia's Embrace of Capitalism

The country has undoubtedly embarked on the road to capitalism, and this is the “beacon to which the Russian ship is heading.” He argued that political scholars should concentrate on examining the economic developments and long-term political and social changes this will bring.

If the West wants to develop fruitful cooperation with Russia it should begin by analyzing Russia’s interests, which are predominantly economic. Mutually beneficial trade agreements can form a good starting point for negotiations between Russia and the West, and will deliver better results than its current focus on values.

Lynch explained that Russians take a rather reluctant stance towards Western democratic ideals, as these remind them of the troublesome Nineties, when Russia attempted to put them into practice. The Russian population believes that this made the country the West’s “weak cousin”, forcing it to beg for financial support, and marginalizing it from the political mainstream without a voice.

Moreover, much to its disappointment at the time, Russia was not able to integrate into Western structures and organizations. As a result, Russians believe that democracy weakened Russia and was detrimental to its development.

Autocracy vs. Democracy

Robert Kagan, Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, said Trenin’s realistic insights had provoked considerable public reaction, not least because he had argued that Russia was not seeking to integrate into the West, instead preferring a foreign policy based on a position of strength.

However, Kagan questioned Trenin’s assertion that capitalism automatically creates a strong civil society, which then demands more democratic reforms. History has shown that this paradigm does not apply to every country or region.

Kagan agreed that the West should accept Russia as it appears today and should concentrate on developing economic cooperation. However, the West’s perception of Russia as an authoritarian power will inevitably impact the relationship.