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Aspects of the current situation in Russia

At this year's traditional summer lunch of the Mid-Atlantic-Club (MAC) in Bonn at the end of August, Dr. Berghorn, the long-term head of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) in Moscow, spoke on “Aspects of the Current Situation in Russia.”

[Translate to English:] Foto Dr Gregor Berghorn, MAC Bonn

[Translate to English:] Dr Gregor Berghorn beim Mittagsgespräch, MAC Bonn

Based on his profound knowledge of the developments in Russia and in the former Soviet Union (USSR), Berghorn’s differentiated presentation prompted the audience to listen very carefully, especially in light of the current, extremely difficult relationship with Russia. Unlike many observers who seem to have a firm opinion about Russian policy, Berghorn, thanks to a scientific and long-term professional career, has a refined view in respect to “the dilemma with Russia.”

From 1992-98 Berghorn played a decisive role in the establishment of the DAAD office in Moscow, with responsibilities for Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. Over the past six years, he has not only been responsible for the DAAD Office, but has also served as scientific director of the DWIH (German House for Science and Innovation) in Moscow.

In addition to classical DAAD activities (work on grants, the German language, alumni activities, consultation and project support in Bonn and Moscow), Dr. Berghorn was actively involved in establishing the “Center for Comparative German-Russian Literature and Culture” at the Russian “State University of Humanities” in Moscow; he was also engaged in founding 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 (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”.


The Dilemma with Russia

The focus of the speaker’s analysis was a reflection on some aspects of the present situation in Russia. From 2012-2013, with the beginning of President Putin’s third term in office, a “new era” began, in which it has become increasingly difficult to understand what is going on in the country. The speech especially referred to the “dilemma” with Russia. For the careful listener it became clear – as former Secretary of State Friedhelm Ost underlined at the end of the event - that despite all difficulties we should “keep the dialogue with Russia open” given the role the country plays in world politics.

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. Note by E.H).


a mixture of erratic remnants of the old USSR and a new, highly unpredictable Russia

What we are experiencing in Russia at the moment, according to Berghorn, is a mixture of “erratic remnants of the old USSR and a new, highly unpredictable Russia.” Since 2013 at the latest, i.e. since the beginning of Putin’s third term as President, it has become more difficult to determine what is going on in the country. In the former USSR there was a lot of emphasis on education, technology, science, and there were well educated thinkers who were predictable. Speaking of Russia, Volodin, one of the closest and most loyal advisors to Putin and head of the presidential office, 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 peak of the Space 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 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).


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.

The 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 also 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” (Berghorn emphasized that the term “agent” cannot be equated with the more narrow meaning in German.)  In the course of this operation various foundations, among them US AID, UNESCO, Fond Eurasia and the Carnegie Foundation were shut down in 2012. Putin’s domestic measures also included a law that was passed in August 2012 which is directed against the freedom of the press; on the basis of a law proposal that was passed by the Russian domestic Secret Service FSB in October 2012, contacts with foreigners / foreign organizations can be interpreted as espionage and treason and as a threat to the security of Russia. The “foreign agent law” and the “law on treason” did not only lead to the closure of several foreign NGO’s, for example, the British Council, but created a kind of “electromagnetic ring” around political foundations like the Goethe-Institut and Bosch- Stiftung, impairing severely their work, with the exception of scientific organizations such as the DFG (German Research Foundation), Helmholtz- Foundation,  DAAD, German Academic Exchange Service and DHI (Deutsches Historisches Institut).


From an abstract point of view it is clear to everyone: Russia urgently needs modernization in education, production, business, management and technology

The modernization and innovation policy which had been initiated under President Medvedev was set to “zero” under Putin, has 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. With his intimidating legislation, the struggle against civil society and lack of a “decisive fight against corruption,” Putin deprived the country of its chance to “develop creativity,” Berghorn concluded. At the same time with the beginning of the new era, a “massive revitalization of patriotic ideas” began, which is being exploited by Putin.


Dichotomy between Russian Economic and Foreign Policy

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. “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. An exception is former Treasury Minister Kudrin who is relentlessly urging for reforms.

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.


challenged by the encirclement from the EU and NATO

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.  Putin does not have a “coherent foreign policy concept,” the speaker stated. The decisive criterion for his actions is to restore the “respect and international standing” for Russia.


Lack of a Philosophy of State and Law - Recourse to “Old Recipes”?

Berghorn pointed to an “underlying” problem and emphasized how important it was that “we in the West” get some sense of the developments, problems and sensitivities that lie in the “depth of Russian space.” At the moment this includes the inability to “get corruption under control” and an 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.


The “Putin system,” is unable to solve these problems

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 “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.

There is a reaction formation to such developments. In the attempt to pave the way for a “strong Russia,” in Berghorn’s view, we actually can observe phenomena which remind one of the USSR: centralism, control, preserving the status quo and strengthening of power instruments such as the army, services and administration, while the civil society and media are weakened and there is a lack of a functioning division of powers. Putin's self-presentation, his residences, and those of the state's leadership have nothing in common with former Soviet sobriety. “He is the autocrat, the sole decision maker. There are still discussions with some trusted individuals, but not anymore with institutions.”

At the same time, reference is made to concepts from pre-revolutionary Russia. Putin likes to compare himself with the Czarist Prime Minister P.A. Stolypin (1862-1911), “whose land reform had failed, but who clearly recognized the security policy of Russia and acted accordingly.” Furthermore, the state tolerates the interference of the Church in artistic and daily life, while the discussion whether Russia should follow Western values or its own value system ​​(Westerners / Zapadniki and Slavic or Russophiles) is being revived.


Missed Strategic Partnership with Germany

Russia appears rather as an “inconsistent and self- contradictory” country. Putin was the one who re-established order after the chaos period of Yeltsin and he was successful in this. However, he hasn’t developed “any coherent strategic concept.” The question also arises about the missed strategic partnership with Germany (if it had not broken down, it might have prevented the Crimea escalation).

There is the need for modernizing the economy, technology, industry, energy sector and the education system, yet we are dealing with very “rigid structures.” Key positions are not occupied by “creative and open minded people” but by those who are not interested in changing the status quo. “Putin calls for internationalizing the economy, above all this is demanded for the academic and scientific field, but at the same time the legislation (foreign agent law, treason law) is causing uncertainty. According to Berghorn, for Russia to become really strong, what lacks is an economic basis: ideology, the power of persuasion and the will to implement decisions, strong armed forces which act globally as well as outstanding individual personalities.

The speaker qualified the policy which President Putin presented after 2012 as “actionism.” It is based on changing strategic partnerships, where the Chinese partnership exerts a strong economic influence on Russia. There are sudden foreign policy activities in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Venezuela, Syria, but without sustainable coherence. Only brief military interventions in Syria, but with no peace; expansion of territories, which damage the reputation and as a consequence lead to economic sanctions. These are all tactical, short-term and rather defensive measures without a long-lasting “positive radiance” comparable to Gorbachev's perestroika.



necessary to keep the dialogue with Russia open

Against the background of the developments which the speaker outlined, the chairman of the Bonn MAC, former State Secretary Friedhelm Ost, at the end of the event emphasized that it was necessary to keep the dialogue with Russia open. 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, he said, Russia plays a role in world politics, and as the example of Syria demonstrates, many of the strategic problems will not be solved without Russia.

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