Is Russia Rising?

By Kuchins, Andrew C. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Is Russia Rising?


Kuchins, Andrew C., Demokratizatsiya


A great deal has changed for the better in Russia in the past ten or so years. Political authority is determined by competitive elections at virtually every level. More than 70 percent of Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) is produced in the private sector. The economy and the society of Russia have been demilitarized to a greater extent than at any time in modern history. Several hundred thousand nongovernmental organizations have emerged to form the core of a growing civil society. The transformation that is taking place in Russian politics, economics, and society has been accompanied by a revolution in foreign and security policy as well. After more than forty years of opposition to the West during the cold war, Russia has worked with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to bring peace to Yugoslavia and has supported the United States in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russia has acquiesced to a U.S. military presence in Central Asia as well as in the Caucasus; is actively seeking membership in the World Trade Organization; and seeks to integrate more deeply with NATO and the European Union (EU).

Of course, there are many dark spots in the picture as well. The war in Chechnya grinds on with no end in sight. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of some activists and scholars and the curtailment of media freedom impinge on human and civil rights. Political life has acquired a stage-managed quality, and political parties have been stunted in their development. Social services for most of the population have continued their decline and poverty has grown. The overall health of the Russian population has worsened, contributing to a deepening demographic crisis. Despite protestations to the contrary, Russian enterprises continue to proliferate nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.

In the past year there have been many articles, essays, and commentaries marking the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and addressing various aspects of Russian development over the first post-Soviet decade. In this essay, I look farther into Russia's future. What will we be saying about Russia twenty or thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? What forces will shape Russia in the next decade or two? Can one make a plausible argument that Russia is rising after an undeniably precipitous fall? Let us stretch our imaginations and get beyond what may or may not be the inscrutable Putin's true intentions, the implications of NATO expansion, and other issues of the day. I should say at the outset that one embarks on such an exercise with much trepidation and humility; after all, in 1982 virtually nobody predicted the Russia that exists today.

Potential Economic Growth and Great Power Status

The future economic development of Russia is a reasonable place to begin, as success in that area could provide the foundation for increasing both the size of the middle class, which is essential to Russia's democratic development, and the resources allocatable to foreign and security policy. Fortunately, the egregious miscalculations that marred estimates of the size of the Soviet economy twenty years ago are most certainly a thing of the past. It is unlikely that present estimates of the Russian economy are as far off the mark and they thus provide a more reasonable basis for speculation on Russia's future economic performance. For example, in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy cited World Bank figures indicating that the Soviet GDP in 1980 was a little less than 50 percent of the U.S. GDP ($1.2 and $2.6 trillion, respectively). (1) Nineteen years later, in 1999, the World Bank estimated the U.S. GDP at $9.1 trillion and the Russian GDP at $401 billion. Taking into account that Russia is not as large as the Soviet Union, which skews the comparison somewhat, it is hard to believe that even Russia fell that far that fast. It is certain that Russia will not be able rapidly to recover such relative economic power, if indeed it ever had it.

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