[VIEWPOINT]Russia’s place in the 21st century

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[VIEWPOINT]Russia’s place in the 21st century

At first glance, Russia bears many of the hallmarks of a great power. It possesses a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, enormous reserves of oil and other minerals, a recent record of robust economic growth and more territory than any other country despite being only three-fourths the size of the former Soviet Union.
Closer inspection, however, reveals a different Russia. Much of its wealth reflects the increased value of energy, not productive economic activity. Russia’s armed forces are able to project little in the way of usable military might. Its population is now less than Pakistan’s and is declining by 500,000 people per year, leaving large portions of its vast landmass mostly uninhabited. Male life expectancy is now less than 60 years, owing to alcoholism, crime, drugs, disease and a dreadful public health system.
All this adds up to a Russia that, if not quite a Potemkin state, is anything but great. There are limits to what Russia can accomplish in the world in any positive sense, although its capacity to be a spoiler or create problems is considerable. Decisions made in Moscow can affect world energy prices, the future of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and the success of terrorists. For better and for worse, Russia still matters. But how much will it matter?
One question concerns political stability. In order to remain intact and functional, the country needs a political system and a society that persuade talented young people to stay in Russia and that provides them with the education to develop their talent. There also must be limits on the power of the central government and the presidency, a degree of regional autonomy and rule of law, in short the rudiments of a modern state and democracy. Alas, Russia is moving more in the opposite direction; political power is becoming more, not less, concentrated.
The economic picture is similarly uncertain. High energy prices are a boon to Russia’s economy, but, as is often the case in the Middle East and other oil- and gas-rich regions, they can be a burden as well, feeding corruption and discouraging real economic activity. The challenge for Russia’s leaders is to use its oil wealth to educate Russia’s people and rebuild Russia’s infrastructure, thereby ensuring global competitiveness and employment growth.
Russia needs a national security strategy to complement its political and economic renewal. All stick and little carrot has failed to quell Chechen nationalism, and President Vladimir Putin’s heavy-handed attempts to control Russia’s so-called “near abroad,” as in the Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, have been no more successful. Nor will any posture succeed that seeks to put Russia forward as a geopolitical counterweight to the United States. Such a strategy might be politically satisfying to some, but Russia lacks the resources to compete with the United States and needs good bilateral relations in order to proceed with its own internal transformation.
At the same time, the best way to help bring about a more liberal Russia, one that promises to be more stable at home and more responsible abroad, is by working with it. The outside world can and should support the strengthening of civil society, independent media and a true transfer of political power in 2008.
Isolating Russia makes no sense. Russian membership in the World Trade Organization has the potential to strengthen the rule of law, combat corruption, and give Russia a stake in better relations with the outside world. Closer ties between Russia and the European Union make sense for similar reasons.
There should also be some understanding of what Russia and the Russian people have gone through over the past two decades. Losing a country and a special place in the world is the sort of trauma that could lead to the emergence of extreme and potentially violent nationalism.
Russia should be treated as a major power, which means consultations on important global issues. Its voice should be heard on matters ranging from terrorism and weapons proliferation to global climate change and energy policy. Next year’s G-8 meeting in Russia provides an opportunity to do all of this and more.
Amid all the attention being devoted to China and the potential for competition or even conflict with the United States, it should not be forgotten that Russia’s future hangs in the balance, for history suggests that declining powers can pose as great a challenge to world order as rising ones. One need only consider Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey at the start of the 20th century or the former Yugoslavia at its end.
So far, the decline of what was the Soviet Union has proceeded relatively well; Russia, the principal successor state, has avoided all-out civil war and war with its neighbors. But the challenge of integrating Russia remains. At best, Russia is a potential partner in the effort to manage globalization’s challenges; at worst, it is a potential problem. What is certain is that how Russia develops will be a key factor in determining the character of this century, no less than the last.

* The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Opportunity: America’s Chance to Alter History’s Course.”

by Richard N. Haass
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