Sławomir Popowski, longtime Moscow correspondent for Polish press in an interview with Stanisław Zakroczymski.
What was on your mind when you listened to the speech delivered by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin last Tuesday?
I pitied Russia because I am very fond of it.
It is losing again its historic chance to develop. In the last three hundred years Russians had been calling their homeland an underdeveloped country, a state that has to reach the level of the advanced civilization but the gap is widening. After the collapse of communism Russians hoped for such a transformation. But Putin stresses the role of military force and diminishes meaning of an internal modernization of Russia. Russia will end up on the road to nowhere. We are coming back to the entry point.
Do you have in mind a revival of the USSR?
This current project of Putin differs from the USSR. He does not intend to rebuild the structures of the empire but rather to make Kremlin the center of an independent political power, which will be an alternative to the Western world. Putin perceives the West as his main enemy. This situation is a pattern formation that can be found on every stage of history of Russia in last three hundred years.
Does the re-construction of the empire exclude the modernization of the country?
Yes, it does. One can not combine an outer expansion with an internal reform. Modernization depends on a new model of government based on liberties, democracy, decentralization and civil society. Putin’s model is not compatible with it. The most reform-minded tsar Alexander II, who emancipated the Russian serfs allowed them to acquire property, reformed courts and relaxed censorship, refused to transform the state into constitutional republic. Did he fear losing power? No, because as he had explained “it would be liquidation of empire”. I think that Putin asks himself every night: what will happen after the demise of the empire? This is his main political motivation.
Did the failed liberal reform in the nineteen nineties discourage the Russians from modernization?
Certainly it did, but one has to explain the causes of this failure.
Was it not also a tough, neo-liberal policy of West that prevented the social democratic reform by Gorbatchev?
Maybe this is also a cause, but one should look for reasons of the failure of liberal reform on the Russian side. After all some countries from the former Soviet bloc overcame difficult beginning of free market system and today they are in a different place than Russia.
Who should take the blame for the current mess?
The liberal and democratic political elite was too weak. In 1991, few days after the August coup, I talked to Oleg Rumiantsev, one of the authors of the first Russian constitution. We stood where Yeltsin spoke on the balcony of Russian Parliament called White House. We were approached by Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was at that time Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Russian Federation and who later became Yeltsin’s political rival. He asked Rumiantsev: “What are we supposed to do next?” I remember very well that Khasbulatov replied: “We are taking over all of state and union institutions now!”
So the power structures remained unchanged only its facade was new?
Regional nomenklatura which was characterized by an even more primitive political culture than central nomenklatura took over real political power. If liberal elites had any power, they only enjoyed an official vehicle and a villa.
In result Russia conceived “nye-do-gosudarstva” system that can be liberally translated as “a country-to-be”. An organism which appears to have developed structures but it can not function. There is a Parliament in Russia which, as Lilya Shevtsova said, is being steered by “the personalized power in Kremlin”. There are political parties in Russia but Kremlin can establish new one only to antagonize an opposition before elections. Russian courts are corrupted. Some analytics, who make an attempt to describe the political system in Russia make the same type of mistake: they are using the same categories for description of the political system in West and East. It is impossible to discuss the Russian reality using such method.
This problem of a weak Russian state is combined with the social stratification…
Certainly. Small circle of tycoons, former communist nomenklatura, or former Komsomol amassed fortunes. Khodorkovsky, who became a great human rights activist, is the best example. In the late 1980’s he was a youth party activist and allegedly started his career importing “Atari” computers, and later also food products also from Poland. And – he, allegedly, would pay bribes to state officials according to the percentage of the value of contracts.
These fortunes became foundation for the commercial banks, which formed group of seven banks that financed Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996 having received gigantic tax-concession from the state. He won, although he had his approval rating at 4 percent. Later, Vladimir Potanin, the president of Onexin Bank was nominated as Deputy Prime Minister to guard the interests of these seven banks. It was birth of Russian capitalism. Those from the bottom of the social ladder had no chance. No Russian millionaire started their career selling on the streets as it was sometimes a case in Poland. Nobody could be a “rag to riches” millionaire in Russia.
There was a widening poverty gap in the same time…
Some social groups faced pauperization! I remember Mrs Ludmila, who during the nineties would deliver fresh eggs to the apartments of foreigners at the Kutozovsky Prospekt in Moscow but in the past she was wife of an influential member of the Regional Council of Communist Party. Many university educated Russians would sell lard placed on dirty newspapers on the muddy streets of Moscow. This nation of the outer space explorers convinced about its greatness and pride was impoverished and humiliated.
Is Putin exploiting this sense of Russian humiliation?
It is worse than that. His politics reminds me of a style of government of tsar Nicholas I. He based his politics on the worst political instincts rooted deeply in Russian soul: one ruler, who makes all decisions; self-conviction of Russian superior civilization with its messianic mission and the Russian Orthodox Church which is focused on the defense of the most conservative values against the decaying Western civilization.
In December of 2012 there were big political demonstrations in Moscow. World press prophesied that we were witnessing the birth of the middle class in Russia which demands personal and political liberties. What happened to this middle class?
I think the world press overestimated the power of this movement. There were approximately hundreds of thousands of demonstrators while during the time of Perestroika it would had been three or four times more. Even if we agree that this group is one fifth of the Russian population, still this opposition remains weak. It is not only divided but it can not figure out a vision of future Russia. This group understands the necessity to change the government but it does not know which alternative to choose, which economic, social and legal reforms have to be introduced. However the middle class is hope for Russia. But it can be maturing yet for long time. It is affected by the imperial complex. One has to remember that collapse of Soviet Union was a tragedy also for some liberals, who were in fond of democracy. It was not a contradiction for them.
That is why public support for Russian leader is so high?
One of the reasons is an imperial-chauvinist sentiment. The other is a power of Russian propaganda from Kremlin. One has to remember that television is the only source for news for eighty percent of Russians. From this reason Kremlin keeps monopoly over television although it allows for niche opposition newspapers and radio station in Moscow. Russians, especially those from the rural areas, think Putin’s slogans. These are ultra-nationalist slogans.
There is wide debate on European energy independence. Does Putin’s imperial policy can be financed by the Russian economic growth?
Russian economy has a problem of over-reliance on only one sector. Oil and gas exports account for around 60 percent of Russia’s GDP. Russian budget was constructed based on projected price of 101-103 dollars per barrel of crude oil. It is obvious that even such a high price can not guarantee of economic growth in Russia and it can even endanger it. One can only imagine what would happen if that price would be lowered.
Are Russians not modernizing their economy?
They are talking much about it and possibly they are realizing that the modernization of economy is necessary. Even Vladimir Putin recently admitted that the economy highly relying on exports of commodities have reached its long-term growth potential. During the Medvedev presidential term Russia saw much discussion about the modernization of economy. Unfortunately almost nothing was done. It is not even a problem of Gazprom which spends more on a construction of their strategically located gas pipelines than on exploration to find new fields or new technologies. There are more basic problems.
Let’s take one example. One can not travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by car. We are not talking even about the lack of free ways. There are locations where there are no asphalt road surfaces. In 1980s Soviet Union was called as “Upper Volta with missiles”. Recently Vitaliy Portnikov, a Ukrainian journalist referred to Russia as a “Upper Volta with bank loans” when Putin made an attempt to bribe Ukrainians with the several billion dollars of loans. It is a policy of lifestyle beyond their means which can end up very badly for Russia. The danger of an economic crash is hanging over Russia’s economy.
How can it be prevented?
In 2009 outstanding analyst Dmitriy Trenin presented Putin with his conclusion: either modernization or marginalization. He had proven that if Russia wanted to change, it had to open itself for Europe. There would be consequences of such policy for Poland because Trenin argued that Russia could no longer cooperate with Europe while ignoring us. This is why Putin decided to make a political gesture and come to commemorate the anniversary of Second World War in Westerplatte. Unfortunately the Russians resigned from this idea and recently Putin’s actions made it impossible.
Supporters of the firm stance towards Russia argue that Lech Kaczynski’s tough line on Moscow was correct and Donald Tusk’s warmth towards Russia was naive. Are they right?
It looks like that Juliusz Mieroszewski was right when he said that we are led by two syndromes in our relations with Russia. The syndrome of insurrection according to which the worse Russia is the better for us. From the other hand, the “syndrome of Targowica” – if we are obedient and nice to Russia we will gain the most. Mieroszewski argued that both attitudes are neurotic. Neurosis can not be foundation for political realism. I fully agree with this diagnosis.
Did the syndrome of insurrection characterize Kaczynski’s politics?
It was even intellectually interesting but unfortunately unrealistic and it was “puffing itself up”. One has to come to such a conclusion analyzing the Kaczynski’s concept of anti-Russian alliances with Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia or his alternative energy politics with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. One can not make an alternative out of dialogue with Russia. This is necessary element of rational foreign policy towards each neighbor. Nobody can be pushed around by Russia but taking an arrogant attitude towards Moscow is not wise.
What can be Poland’s policy towards Russia during its expansion?
The current political situation in the East is a grave danger for Poland. I think that the Ukrainian conflict is secondary to fact that Russia is formulating new geopolitics, new political order in Europe. The West has to decide whether such situation is acceptable. Fortunately recent decisions by President Obama, and to a lesser extend also of European Union, may suggest that there is no agreement for such Russian policy. I think that the internationalization of the Ukrainian conflict is a great success of Polish policy. I am sure that West reacted in a more decisive way than during the war in Georgia six years ago under the influence our politicians.
So it was an appropriate reaction of West. What should be a long-term foreign policy of Polish government in this context?
As an euro enthusiast I believe that the interest of foreign policy of Poland should be part of the interests of the foreign policy of European Union. Polish government should continue fight for an influence to define them. This may seem like a paradox but I believe that because of Ukrainian conflict European Union can easier agree on its foreign policy than it was before.
The European political order built in the last twenty five years was undermined. It was the “end of history” understood as a collapse of Soviet Union and a creation of sovereign states. There were different problems but after all we were going in the same direction.
Today we are facing the birth of a new political order which is still being shaped. Rejecting Apocalyptic scenarios about the Third World War, I can imagine a new Berlin Wall along the Bug river. It would not be beneficial for us, but such a result is possible.
If a new Berlin Wall can be built along the Bug river, why can’t it stand along the Oder river?
Fortunately such a scenario seems to be impossible after twenty five years of our integration with the West. It seems to be the greatest success of Poland in this last quarter of century.
Translated by Tomasz Pompowski.
Sławomir Popowski – journalist and editor of Studio Opinii and New Eastern Europe. Between 1985 and 1995 he was Moscow correspondent for Polish press. He specializes in Eastern Europe.