Putin and the Chinese Model
No one in the West should have been surprised at the course Russia has taken under the administration of President Vladimir Putin.
The move away from liberalism toward a system of "managed pluralism" in Russia reflects the desire of the current government to control the scope and pace of reforms.
What may be news to some, however, is that Putin and his team are not animated by nostalgia for an imagined Soviet past. No, they are inspired by the obvious success of their immediate Asian neighbor China and are increasingly aware of China's own critique of the reform path embraced by former President Boris Yeltsin.
Christopher Marsh, director of Asian studies at Baylor University, has observed: "The Chinese are actively studying 'what went wrong' in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe, hoping to devise policies that can continue to promote economic growth and a gradual deepening of pluralism, without resulting in a violent or sudden collapse of the current system. Ideas such as contrasting a 'controlled' as opposed to an 'uncontrolled' transition permeate the scholarly research in China on post-Soviet Russian politics."
Speaking at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., at the end of January, Irina Khakamada, a leader in the center-right Union of Right Forces and a 2004 Russian presidential candidate stated that Putin and his close advisers have been studying the "Chinese variant." They note that while China is not a democracy, its stable government has been successful in attracting international capital from major institutional investors.
This fact has not been lost on Russia's political leaders; speaking at the Open Russia Foundation's Young Leaders' Conference in September 2003, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov posed the question, "Why does China get $77 billion in investment and why is there none for 'democratic' Russia?"
Khakamada believes that the Putin team's answer to this question is that investors find a stable and predictable government, even if not democratic, easier to do business with. In other words, major investors will choose an autocratic but stable regime over a democratic but chaotic one.
And, according to Khakamada, small businesses within Russia have made the same conclusion, and this helps to explain the strong support for the Russian president among entrepreneurs.
Dimtri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, agrees. In Moscow, he noted, there is considerable envy and respect in Moscow for the political and economic achievements of the Chinese leadership. Not only in domestic affairs but in foreign relations as well, the "role model is China."
This has significant consequences. During the 1990s, the Russians hoped that they would be welcomed with open arms into the Euro-Atlantic community, perhaps even become one of the vice-chairmen of the board, alongside Great Britain. In contrast, China has concentrated on cementing its standing as the key regional power in East Asia. Increasingly, the Kremlin is adopting this strategy vis-a-vis Eurasia.
A "Chinese" Russia, in some ways, may become a more stable and predictable Russia, one with stable, if more limited, zones of pluralism, a Russia predisposed to cooperate with the United States on key issues of mutual concern but less interested in developing a "partnership" with the West.
It also holds real implications for America's "generational" project to transform the "greater Middle East." The Chinese model of controlled reform may prove to be more beneficial, over the long run, for creating states and societies that are both more open and stable at the same time, than the "creative destruction" that marked Boris Yeltsin's Russia.
David M. Lampton, writing in a recent issue of The National Interest on Sino-American relations, concludes, "Americans must balance the impulse to treat China as it is with the foresight to recognize China for what it may become." Sound advice that should be applied to Russia as well.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of In The National Interest.
A version of this article first appeared in United Press International.