I was recently contacted by Anacronista from the website Controinformazione in Italy and we agreed to do a short Q&A which was published today here in Italian. I am posting the original English text of our exchange below.
Anacronista: Today the contrast between Russian and US foreign policies is striking: on one side moderation, common sense, respect for sovereign states; on the other side coups d'etat, threats, sanctions and lies. Is the contrasting behaviour of the two powers due to incidental political calculations or to a different underlying view of life?
The Saker: The first thing to point out is that Lavrov and Putin are extremely well educated men who come from elite institutions: Lavrov from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Putin from the former external intelligence directorate of the KGB. They are far better educated that modern US diplomats. In the past the US also had distinguished diplomats like James Baker, but now they are either total idiots (like Psaki) or arrogant liars (like Powers). The second this is that the USA truly does not have a "diplomacy". After all, US "diplomacy" is just a combination of demands, promises, threats and bombings which do not require any real diplomatic skills. Third, Russia has greatly suffered from the costs of empire, both under the Czars and under the Soviet rule. As a result, Russia does not want to be an empire, or a super power, or a world policeman or a hegemon. All Russia wants is to be a *normal* but, and this is important, a *truly sovereign* country. In order to achieve that Russia has a few basic fundamental rules she really believes in:
- Turn your enemies into neutrals, your neutrals into partners, your partners into friends and your friends into allies. The US can only conceptualize two categories: vassals and enemies.
- Security is always and necessarily collective. If your neighbor does not feel safe, then you also are not safe. The US only feels secure then it can threaten everybody, as a result of which, everybody feels threatened.
- International law really matters to the Russians. Why? Because they want a multi-polar world and that, in turn, mandates that the "rules of the game" (international law) be upheld. The US wants a unipolar world which, therefore, has no need for international law.
- For Russia, the use of military forces is the last resort and a failure of diplomacy. For the US the use of force is an integral part of what it calls "diplomacy"
Anacronista: What are the substantial differences, if any, between Western capitalism and Russian capitalism? Is Russia run by "markets"?
The Saker: No, Russia has a deeply dysfunctional economy. First, Russian interest rates as so high as to completely inhibit most credit for the creation of small to medium size companies. In fact, interest rates in Russia are higher than the profitability of entire sectors of the economy. Second, a huge amount of Russian money leaves Russia every year into offshore accounts and is then returned to Russia in form of "foreign investments". Combine that with the fact that most Russian corporations are incorporated outside Russia (in the UK typically) and you will immediately conclude that the entire economic/financial system in Russia is designed to prevent Russia from diversifying the Russian economy and get off the "energy needle". Russia is also poorly regulated, has a very erratic taxation system, very limited government investments and corrupt courts (hence the use of arbitrage). The Russian market has clear signs of being an oligopoly and this is a major inhibitor to the real potential of the Russian society. Some economist say that the Russian economy is barely turning at 2/3-1/2 of its true potential.
On a very different level I would also note that true capitalism has never been part of the Russian culture. Russian culture is far more collective and Russian people are not inspired by worldviews which offer little besides hopes of self-enrichment and the monetization of everything. Russian culture has always been social and social justice is an ideal which still is strong in Russia today while unbridled greed is frowned upon.
Anacronista: In Western states, money creation and management are in the hands of private banks such as the FED and the ECB. How does it work in Russia?
The Saker: Russia also have a Fed-like Central Bank which can only print Rubles in amounts corresponding to the purchase of dollars. This is a crazy idea. Officially, the Central Bank has a mission to keep the Ruble stable, but in reality all it appears to care about in inhibiting inflation which is a very bad idea, especially in times of recession and sanctions like today.
Anacronista: Does Russia plan to extend industrialization and modern infrastructure to all its territory?
The Saker: In theory yes. There are plans to re-industrialize and re-develop Siberia, the Russian Far East, Crimea and other regions. Again, in theory there is an import-substitution program being worked upon to begin developing indigenously that which was imported in the past. Major investment programs have been announced to modernize the infrastructure, especially the roads, airports, railways, etc. On paper these programs look terrific, but as long as the Russian Central Bank continues to choke down the Russian economy and the Medvedev Government continues to sabotage Presidential decisions I am not very optimistic.
Anacronista: What is Russian view on immigration and integration: how does Russia manage the many ethnicities that make up the immense Federation and the new arrivals from abroad?
The Saker: There are many tensions around this issue and lot's of disagreements. Historically, Russia has always been a multi-ethnic state thanks to which 180 different ethnic groups have survived in Russia (compare that with the USA!). Even the so-called "Russians" (roughly 80% of the people) are almost always with very mixed ethnic roots. To be "Russian" is not an ethnic/racial thing. Even Orthodoxy tends to categorize people by their worldview and values and not their biological roots. There are, however, real cultural and religious differences which create tensions: poorly educated and heavily criminalized minorities from the now independent ex-Soviet republics and Wahabi Islam which is very closely connected to terrorism. In response to these two problems, the Kremlin introduced three main policies: support for local economies in depressed regions, support for local law-enforcement and support for traditional Islam (which in the former Soviet Union is never Wahabi). There are also problems with Chinese immigrants but these are mainly local and not nearly as severe as those with immigrants from the South (Caucasus, Central Asia).
Anacronista: Drugs, family crisis, social disintegration: to what an extent is Russia affected by the evils that trouble the West, and how is it planning to heal them?
The Saker: Russia also has all the problems you list, including drugs, dysfunctional families and social disintegration. The main difference in with the West is that these were at their worst in the horrible 1990s when, as the local joke says, every boy wanted to be a criminal and every girl wanted to be a prostitute (not literally true, of course, but partially true nonetheless). Since Putin came to power these problems have begun a slow but steady process of improvement whereas in the West things are still getting worse with every passing day. The main factor is that the Russian society which in the 1990s wanted to emulate the West has now grown disillusioned and even disgusted with the West and as a result of the the entire western civilizational model is being rejected. A lot of Russians are returning to their historical, civilizational and religious roots (Orthodox Christianity and Islam) while others are looking towards an original "Russian" social/civilizational model. While there is definitely still a class of people who want to be like Europeans, the Ukrainian slogan "the Ukraine is Europe" would have zero traction in Russia. If anything, the western hostility and hypocrisy towards Russia has convinced the vast majority of Russians that the West hold no promise for Russia. I estimate that the pro-western population in Russia is at no more than 5% of the total.
Anacronista: Classics are more and more neglected in Western education, thus alienating the youth from their heritage and traditions. What is the relationship between the past, the present and the future in Russia?
The Saker: Very interesting but also very painful question. The Russian past has been very tragic, especially in the 20th century. But even before that. There are still Russians who - like Alexander Solzhenitsyn - say that the deep roots of the Russian Revolution can be found in the 18th century reforms of Peter I. I tend to agree with that. The Russian civilization has been more or less oppressed for no less than 300 years. Yet, Russian cannot simply reject 300 years of her history, take a time machine and return to the Russia of Alexei Mikhailovich. But neither can Russia simply endorse everything which was done in the past 3 centuries. There is a small movement of National-Bolsheviks who basically say that every Czar was good, and Lenin was good, and Stalin was good, and more or less everything Russian is great. But that is nonsense and this ideology has no future. And yet, Russians are also deeply attached to their roots and believe that somebody with no past has no present and no even real future. So the quest is on for a criteria, a worldview, a unifying ideology which would allow Russians to separate the good from the bad and, hopefully, keep the good. I think that nobody in Russia wants yet another revolution or a "Russian Maidan". So rather then revolution, evolution is the order of the day. But Russia needs an evolution towards higher ideals then just greed, profit, wealth and comfort. So far, no real solution has been found to that problem. If you carefully read the program statements of Putin, he does offer a consensus vision which roughly 80% of Russians support: respect for tradition, respect for individual freedom, social solidarity, national sovereignty, respect for the family and the social collective, a quest for social and economic justice and a general endorsement for traditional religions (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism). That is, of course, only a beginning, but I personally find it a reasonable and healthy one.