The New ECFR Study „Dealing with a Post-BRIC Russia” – Why it Doesn’t Say Much?

I was recently suggested to look at the new ECFR paper on Russia, which I did. Bellow I am posting a few random comments, reflecting my observations and disagreements with the paper analysis. In some parts I am not contesting the essence of its ideas, but the way they were explained and argued – their logic and evidence. Obviously the paper required a huge work and effort, so I respect this, and my observations below are not meant in any way to downplay its importance. It is instead a call from a fellow political scientist for a more rigorous approach to regional studies, based on existing political science tools and methods. Despite of its highly-acclaimed recommendations the paper is saying much less than it could have, should the authors have considered to be more sensitive to a number of analytic and methodological issues. At the end of the day, everyone is going to be better off if the quality of think tank products will increase –  both the producers and the consumers.

Here are my comments:

Russia is „post-BRIC”  – what does it mean exactly, and what is a possible threshold that puts Russia to be ‘post’? When Russia was coined a member of the „BRIC” it is not clear that it was less corrupted, or had superior economic strategy and infrastructure – it was the price of oil basically that explains that labeling in addition to a powerful state influence over the economy. The price of oil though is a volatile thing, it can go back to high values, especially due to increasing global consumption, crises in geographic areas that are exporting oil and gas, etc. So the authors basically seem to say that because Putin returns to power, then Russia is becoming „post-BRIC”. Well, exactly the actions authors are afraid he is going to perform (harsher measures domestically and externally) has made Russia a part of BRIC. Therefore, this section of the paper is inconsistent and contradictory, it lacks thorough logic and clear analytic metrics.

Yeltsin’s „weak” Russia was more dominant in the CIS in 1990s than Putin’s „strong” Russia in 2000s.  – this is another overstatement which was not explained or supported by evidence and logic. It is also important to realize that earlier in Yeltsin era Russia faced very few Western opposition and influence in CIS, while in Putin’s era that become quite more significant in a comparative perspective. Therefore, it is not obvious what criteria for measuring the difference in „dominance” the authors have used, yet what they have claimed looks less than convincing.

Then, when talking about EU involvement in post-Soviet countries, they use an aggrandizing style, grossly exaggerating its effect and influence, while overly diminishing the Russia’s influence on these states. To my understanding the only valid criteria for measuring success is referring to the results, and not to the number of created fora for participation. The latter is not unimportant, but only gains value to the extent that the former persists. I mean, the fact that EU became an observer to the „5+2” negotiations format or has deployed the border monitoring mission is not ignorable, but it has produced marginal effect ex-post in comparison to the ex-ante situation. So a potentially good metric of measurement would be the number of successful policies that generated results in terms of essentially changing the behavior of Russia or of the local elites that preferred the status-quo, of solutions to policy impasses, and not by the number of attempts to inflict changes. That part sounded very unconvincing to me either, and most people that know the situation on the ground would question whether the evidence the authors bring in support of their argument shows actually success or it is just produced by the EU bureaucracy which needs to justify its work.

The section invoking the effect of trade with EU’27 is not a powerful argument either , because of at least a couple of factors: a) that trade is done predominantly bilaterally which means it has much less EU political influence on CIS countries than claimed; b) therefore one needs to compare % of trade by country and not compare EU with Russia, as EU is not a political monolith, since the trade of individual countries is minimally capitalized by Brussels into political influence; c) based on the concept of asymmetric dependence, while these countries may have a lower % share of trade with Russia, it represents the most important for them resources such as oil and gas, and important trade markets for under-quality products or access to the Russian job market. As an authoritarian country in which the government has a significant influence over the economy, Russia is able to much more efficiently capitalize economic links into political influence, and this phenomena is not explored enough in the paper. Some secondary evidence supporting my claims include the recent domestic polls in CIS countries examining the attitude of their people towards Russia and democracy.

Talking about Russia’s influence in Central Asia – again, what metric have the authors used to claim that their examples indicate a decrease in Russia’s influence? It is rather unconvincing, especially since there are other, no less powerful examples that would support opposing claims. Why these countries work on integrating into the economic and security regional arrangements led by Russia? Moscow strategy towards Central Asia has seldom been about economic pressure, unlike what it used against the Western CIS members, but about providing support to the leaders to stay in power, and insulating them against the Western pressure and threats.

Authors clam that China is no longer an emerging market but an emerging superpower. While I am not going to directly contest that statement, I am puzzled why this is so? Again what are the criteria to consider a country an emerging market, and when does it become an emerging superpower? Why Russia is not an emerging superpower? It is just a blunt statement that makes me doubt the whole argument, as I am not convinced how this assumption, even if it is true, is influencing the behavior of China towards Russia. An emerging market would also explore the variation in the global conjunction of economic and political factors, to decrease prices of purchased commodities. China’s actions conformed to this logic. So, I am completely unsure what exactly has transferred China from the category of a EM into that of a superpower, even an emerging one.

Furthermore, it is not clear how disagreements with China, one among the BRIC, make Russia „post-BRIC”? That is in addition to my „post-BRIC” comment above, it just emerged in the paper text at this stage.

Quoting Karaganov that Russia beyond the Urals would become an appendage of China is not very persuasive. It is just an opinion of an individual from Russia’s policy circles, expressing his personal frustrations with what he sees as insufficiently effective policy of Moscow towards its Far East. How exactly this may happen is unclear, as the authors did not take effort to explore it. No mechanism is explained, no threat assessment based on logic is invoked, there is no consideration of obstacles that makes China’s advance into Far East difficult, as for instance may be the ethnic gap between Russians living there and the incoming Chinese. It is impossible for China to assimilate the Russians (under the scenario that it may take over the region) and it is impossible to imagine that Russian government would allow China to take that land without a war. The whole section considering Russia-China relations is not very well explaining and supporting the idea of a post-BRIC Russia.

Time to get to the EU. Many arguments made about EU are cherry-picked. The reader is not getting the clarification why one explanation is chosen at the cost of rivaling explanations. The fact that EU has reduced its energy vulnerability towards Russia can also mean that it would feel less of a security threat coming from Russia. In turn, that would make EU to be more accommodative of Russia, as in fact the empiric evidence provided by the paper indicates. Only insecurity generates harsh and radical countermeasures, but as soon as those are alleviated, pragmatism is more likely to emerge. However, it is too early to talk about a real decrease in energy dependence on Russia. What has emerged now is that less hysteria is being generated, and EU countries are not as scared of Moscow as they used to be. In addition, Russia is still an important stakeholder in European energy market.

I want to make an observation specifically about the quotes and claimed evidence. The paper’s quotes are rather questionable – it even refers to the Moldovan „Unimedia”, which is one of the worst online source in terms of accuracy of data that I’ve seen so far among purported media outlets. The level of professionalism of journalists working at Unimedia is sometimes highly questionable, and there has been extensive criticism of it among its readers, pointing out to grammar mistakes, but also often factual blunders. There have been dozens of cases when they provided inaccurate and misleading information.

I would like to address one other type of reference so frequent in the paper  – „a Russian commentator”. For instance the paper uses this type of reference in support of the claim that visas represent the biggest leverage of EU on Russia. It explains this as follows – because if something goes wrong, the Russia’s elites want to be able to flee the country. The paper continues – „a visa-free regime with EU is therefore one thing that Russia wants most of all” –  that is really a very tendentious claim. It’s an obvious personal, biased, normative-emotional comment on the side of the Russian commentator that would not count as evidence in any serious analysis – only newspaper articles would use that. There are also slight logical contradictions – in one paragraph the authors argue visa-free regime is very important for Russia, but few paragraphs further down the road they recognize it is not. Perhaps this is an issue of ideas communication. Also, even though I understand the authors do not want to reveal their sources, there should be a way to make such claims more solid; for instance by offering factual evidence or data that at least implicitly suggest there is some value in this evaluation. Otherwise it diminishes the credibility of the study.

To fix this and other issues, I would suggest the need to use scientific analytic tools from comparative politics and IR in order to analyze Russia – the selectorate theory for instance („The logic of political survival” Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al, 2005). Other relevant analytic tools could be found in the volume of research  on what makes protests successful  – see the cascade model, see Barrington Moore and his research on transitions between different types of regimes (what makes it more or less likely), the literature on state formation and consolidation  i.e. Charles Tilly, Hendrik Spruyt etc. Nothing from the existing polsci research that I know of would suggest that the main claims in the ECFR paper are likely to be accurate. To the contrary, there is sufficient research suggesting that Putin’s return to power would do the same what it did to Russia in the early 2000s.

Research and empiric evidence across countries show that in times of crises a strong leadership is more successful in preserving territorial integrity of a country and is able to guide the country through the dangerous riffs of the transition. Thus, there are at least as powerful arguments as those explored in the ECFR paper for why Putin coming to presidency again in Russia will actually help it successfully overcome the challenges that lay ahead. One other argument would suggest that it is exactly the somewhat more liberalized political system in Medvedev’s Russia that increased the corruption (if it indeed increased comparing to Putin’s presidency years, or it just made the situation more transparent). During Medvedev’s rule, one story would go, there was less constraint on political elites, and there existed competing poles of power to defend their supporters from justice, which is not the case in a (Putin’s) more vertical power structure system. This assessment is also supported by the selectorate theory, as according to its premises there will be two selectorates guarding the two leadership centers.

Also, the recommendations do not always follow the rigors of a policy relevant advice – to be feasible politically and achievable in the limitations of available resources. It asks EU to consolidate internally if it wants to be able to play more effectively with/against Russia. This is a task of cosmic difficulty for EU, one that is uncertain and that would take time to achieve. Then, cooperation with Russia for modernization does not depend a lot on EU or US or any other foreign actor. Modernization has been compromised from within Russia, and it depends mostly on domestic factors, particularly on what Ron Inglehart calls a shift in values to their post-modernist stage. According to Inglehart only that shift, from self-survival values to self-expression values would generate the necessary societal changes and can pave the way for strong democratic institutions to emerge. In other words, Russia has failed to democratize and modernize because there is a large part of the public that is too conservative to accept this, and they’d (parts of the population) rather prefer a transition from above. They apparently seem to perceive a liberalization of political marketplace that would allow for multiple political forces to compete as being an environment that encourages corruption and the unfair exploitation of the „peoples-owned” natural resources. If you look at alternative data of the current elections (there was an article in „Slon” for instance) it is the KPRF that got the highest number of votes, which suggests many Russians want something resembling the social welfare state of URSS, where individual freedoms were sacrificed in exchange for personal welfare and security. There is distrust of political parties, and trust in a powerful leader – which by the way has been a very common trend in transition countries around the globe. Well, look even at France, with its pre-5th Republic political experience. By the way, the current French public opinion polls and voting participation show limited trust in parties, and increased trust in Presidency.

Overall, the study is too long for something that claims to be a policy paper. It suffers from many clichés about Russia, EU, China and US. It does not generate many original ideas, and is highly biased in preferring some explanations over the others, while failing to explain why they are optimal in comparison with the rivals. It occasionally lacks analytic clarity, since it uses concepts and tools that are ill-defined while leaving the reader unsure what is the exact argument about. Or it does not justify the assumptions, undermining the credibility of the chosen argument. There are also a number of contradictions, as certain ideas voiced in one part are questioned by following arguments. So, I’d prefer such a research to be based more on scientific tools, not necessarily making this obvious. That would discipline the research, by making it more clear about assumptions and their origins, about the data, models and the conditions under which they succeed or fail to accurately grasp/explain the real events. I mean, one does not need to explain the selectorate theory or the cascade principle of successful protests, but one can use their principles in a policy paper style work.  I apologize if my post came to be too critical – I am sympathetic with the ideas of that paper, and I consider it to be an important contribution to the debates on Russia-EU relations.

Acest articol a fost publicat în articole de specialitate, BRIC, China, criza europeana, CSI, democratie, domestic politics, metode de analiza, multipolaritate, Politica externa a UE, Politica interna, Rusia, stiinta, Teoria Relatiilor Internationale. Pune un semn de carte cu legătura permanentă.

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