By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

In the Western debate two currents of thinking determine the perception of present-day Russian events and actions. The majority of the Western press – foremost the US press – is openly hostile and keeps an attacking stance, which is aimed at humiliating Russia. On the other side there are people within scientific, economic and political circles – some of whom often have lived for a long time in Russia – who identify some of the “dilemmas” which this country has to face.

These dilemmas are a result of Russia’s “reaction formation” to events over the last four years. This author recently attended a presentation in Bonn (Mid-Atlantic Club) given by former long-term head of the German DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Dr.Berghorn about “Aspect of the current situation in Russia.” The speech made clear that there is need for a renewed dialogue with Russia, especially in the field of science and economy as well as in strategic questions, given Russia’s decisive role in world politics.

From 1992 till1998 Berghorn played a decisive role in the establishment of the DAAD office in Moscow with responsibilities for Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. He also served during the last years as scientific director of the DWIH (German House for Science and Innovation) in Moscow and was involved in the foundation of the “German-Russian Institute for Advanced Technologies” in Kazan and in the establishment and transfer of an internship program for students of German universities to German companies in Russia. He did this in conjunction with the AHK (German Foreign Trade Chamber) in Moscow and the “Higher School of Economics.” On the basis of President Putin’s initiative calling for comprehensive renewal of Russian universities, Berghorn during this period initiated scholarship programs, jointly funded by the German and Russian side, with additional partners such as the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, the Republic of Tatarstan and major Russian universities. In the course of almost 15 years of international activities, Dr. Berghorn visited approximately 250 universities in all successor states of the USSR, mainly in Russia. He is currently actively engaged in the German-Russian Forum and in the “Petersburg Dialog”, where he is part of the working group on “Education and Science”.

Putin and Russia

The speaker began his presentation with a verse from Russian diplomat and poet Fyodor I. Tjuchev (1803 -1873), “Russia can’t be comprehended by human understanding, its mysteries defy any measure. Since this country is incomparable, you can only believe in it.” (For more than 20 years Tjuchev served as Russian envoy in Munich, a close friend of the German poet Heinrich Heine and translator of Goethe’s and Friedrich Schiller’s poems).

While in the former USSR there was a lot of emphasis on education, technology, science, and there were well educated and rational thinkers, today’s Russia, according to the speaker, is similar to what Volodin – who is one of the closest and most loyal advisors to Putin and head of the presidential office – had once stated in 2014: “As long as there is Putin, there is also Russia. Without Putin there is no Russia.”

Detailed insight was provided into Putin’s biography: born in 1952 as the third child of a Leningrad working class family – his father had survived the Leningrad siege under the Nazis – Putin began his law studies under the leadership of professor Anatoly Sobchak, later mayor of Leningrad; he then joined the KGB and was sent to the city of Dresden (DDR) with special assignments; in 1998 he became chairman of the Russian Secret Service FSB; 1999 Prime Minister and in March 2000 he was elected President of the Russian Federation. “Putin represents a generation that was born after the war and had a positive picture of the Soviet Union.” Growing up during the cosmonaut’s age, he experienced the disintegration of the USSR and with it the loss of the worldwide respect that had existed before. This became for him the “stimulus” to fight for the recovery of the country’s power and respect.

Putin according to the speaker was the first representative of his country who had neither attended a party school nor received any special ideological training, but who was promoted by individuals on the basis of “personal recommendations.” What counts are personal contacts, not institutional structures – a common thread that can be ascertained to this day. Putin stands in the centre and distributes tasks and offices in order to maintain control and security. His system is based on the loyalty of a manageable number of confidants, where the “Siloviki”, the powerful, Interior and Defense ministers play a special role (Defense Minister Schoigu is very close to him and is considered a potential successor, the speaker stressed).

Modernization Policy Set “to Zero”

After the Duma parliamentary elections in late 2011 and spring 2012, there were mass demonstrations in Russia. Simultaneously there were protests in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and later also in Syria. This became a “horror vision” for Putin since he feared “that these protest movements could also spread to Russia.” And this fear was even more enhanced by the Kiev-Maidan unrest. From spring 2012, the beginning of Putin’s third term, a series of far-reaching changes and measures were introduced with respect to Russian policy, at first in domestic policy. Those measures included more control and centralization of the administration. In addition to the appointment of the Governors-General (“polpreds”) of the 10 main administrative areas (which the President began to personally appoint in 2000), since 2012-13 President Putin has also appointed the governors of the 84 – 85 administrative offices (“Federal subjects”). Other measures included the “Russian foreign agent law” directed against various NGOs. Accordingly Russian NGOs which receive funding from abroad have to register with the Ministry of Justice as “agents”. This led to the closing down of various foundations, among them US AID, the Carnegie Foundation and others. The “foreign agent law” and the “law on treason” ( passed by the domestic Secret Service FSB which interpreted the contact of NGO’s with foreign organizations as a potential threat to Russian Security), impaired the work of many foreign NGO’s with the exception of the work of scientific organizations such as the DFG (German Research Foundation), Helmholtz- Foundation or the DAAD.

The speaker noted that under Putin the “modernization and innovation policy” which had been initiated under President Medvedev was set to “zero” which had a major impact on “creativity”. “From an abstract point of view it is clear to everyone: Russia urgently needs modernization in education, production, business, management and technology, especially in the field of education. Without a new, professional-oriented training, an economic re-start is not possible. Education as such is not bad, but it still follows the objectives of the former planned economy conditioned by the lack of substantive reforms,” Berghorn noted.

Berghorn sees one of the great dilemmas in Russia’s “economic policy.” With a total population of 144.5 million (including refugees) or 147.5 million (including the Crimea), the average income is about 25,000-30,000 Rubles, which is the equivalent of an average wage of 495 Euros and he pointed to the dilemma that “Putin and the economic authorities have not developed concepts that lead to a renewal and further development of the economy.” There were no long-term measures implemented, at best short-term measures which were oriented towards rapid profit. And while there has been more turning to political activities, it looks as if the economy has been left on its own.

Economic policy in crisis

The main source of income of the Russian budget is oil, gas and coal (75% of government revenues); in 2016 the Russian State received 150 billion euros from oil, gas and coal; only 82 billion were income from mechanical engineering, chemistry, metal production and agriculture. There is also a lack of investment. While industrialized countries put 30% of their GDP in investments, in Russia this is only 10% (!), with an economic growth varying between 0.2% and 0.6%, depending on the reference year. This goes hand in hand with obsolete industrial plants and conveyor systems, unprofitable heating plants and a costly power production from gas. While only one-fifth of Russia’s foreign trade is carried out with Germany, and with US sanctions (the ban on the export of new drilling technologies) having had a fatal impact on the development of new oil and gas fields, Russia, as a result of the EU sanctions, has become protectionist, especially in the field of agriculture.

Regarding some aspects of Russian foreign policy, the speaker noted that, from 1992 to 2014, the Russian Federation was hardly moving “out of the space of the old USSR” (Kosovo, Georgia, Transnistria, Georgia, South Ossetia). It was only with the beginning of escalation in Ukraine that Russia, which from its point of view felt challenged by the “encirclement from the EU and NATO,” began to expand its foreign policy activities. During this period the strategic partnership with Germany was dissolved and Putin started new strategic partnerships with Turkey and China, in addition to his mediation activity that led to the lifting of the embargo against Iran and the 2015 military intervention in Syria, in order to pre-empt the fall of the Assad government.

The speaker emphasized how important it is for Western observers to get a deeper sense of the developments, problems and sensitivities that lie in the “depth of Russian space.” Aside the lack of getting “corruption under control” he identified as one of the big problems the increasing “depopulation” in the Far North and Far East (Siberia). Despite generous support measures, people are migrating while the influence of China and the Chinese population increases: the costs of maintaining infrastructure (transport, supply, education, health) are high. There is also a high migration rate from Central Asia, ‘guest workers’ from South Caucasus, Moldova, until recently also from Ukraine. We must add the costs of integrating the Crimea (3-4 billion Euros per year), the Donbass and the integration of the refugees from Eastern Ukraine, as well as the integration of the various large ethnic groups, about 20 million non-citizens in the country (the Russian leadership is aware of the challenge of Islamization of the Caucasus, but is cautious in dealing with it), as well as the maintenance of the health system in remote regions. In addition, an increasing urbanization and the growth of “empty spaces” are causing great tensions.

East of the longitude 60 (Siberia), as Berghorn underlined, there is a “horror vacui”- a space in which only 30 million people live. In the so-called Far East, the largest General Government of the Russian Federation, there are only 6 million people. The economic power of the population is declining while the social situation is becoming increasingly unstable. The “Putin system,” which is based on “vertical democracy” and central controlling measures, according to Berghorn’s assessment, is unable to solve these problems. There is no “entrepreneurship” and no “private initiative.” Putin would like to give Russia again “international standing,” but there is no “scientifically based philosophy of state”, no “ideology” for contemporary Russia, no “party” as the carrier of ideas, and the economic power is too weak for effective action on a global scale.

Missed Strategic Partnership with Germany

Putin was the one who re-established order after the chaos period of Yeltsin and he was successful in this. He hasn’t however according to the speaker developed “any coherent strategic concept.” The question also arises about the far reaching consequences of the missed strategic partnership with Germany. (If it had not broken down, it might have prevented the Crimea escalation).

It became clear during the discussion – as former State Secretary Friedhelm Ost, who had invited Dr Berghorn as speaker for a Mid-Atlantic Club event, stated, that precisely because of the dilemmas in Russia which developed over the course of the last years, it is all the more important to “keep the dialogue with Russia” open and constructive. He referred to President Putin’s excellent speech in 2001 in front of the German Federal Parliament which at that time was marked by an optimistic mood and the desire for reforms. “Despite all difficulties, Russia plays a key role in world politics, and as the example of Syria demonstrates, many of the strategic problems will not be solved without Russia.”

Wiesbaden, Sept. 2017

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