Drawing on memoirs, personal interviews and other sources, Professor of Political Science Daniel Treisman, who first traveled to Russia in 1988, has written a sweeping study that covers roughly the period he's spent watching the country. Instead of pondering Russia's dark side or its "soul," Treisman in "The Return: Russia's Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev" looks at Russia as a typical, though important, country facing everyday 21st-century social, political and economic challenges.
The "return" that you write about in this book is Russia's return to the world two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Then again, Soviet Russia had a vigorous foreign policy. Wasn't it engaged with the world?
Right, Russia was not exactly isolated in the sense that its leaders were not participating in international politics. It was the population that was isolated, locked behind barbed wire, unable to communicate with the outside. So, especially the richer Russians, but Russians as a whole have now been able to reengage with the world.
What does this return look like?
In 2009, Russians made 22 million trips to countries beyond the former Soviet Union, up from practically no trips in the late '80s. They've become plugged into Internet networks, they have more than one mobile phone per person. Businessmen are buying companies around the globe, and Russia's leaders are feeling their way toward a role in the international system. What we see is a reengagement with the world at many different levels.
Foreign policy has changed, obviously. The way that Russia has been involved in the world in the last 20 years has been more as a participant in the international game than as a spoiler – a power that seeks to fundamentally reconfigure the international scene and undermine the objectives of other players.
Are the Russian people freer than they were before?
We saw a really dramatic breakthrough to greater freedom and democracy in the early '90s, followed by a gradual reversion. So I would say it's something like two steps forward, one step back. Still, if we simply compare the last 20 years to just about any other period in Russian history, Russians have been freer than at any time going back at least to the 16th century, at least to before Ivan the Terrible.
Still, couldn't you say that, with the exception of Boris Yeltsin, recent leaders have been hand-picked by their predecessors?
It's not so simple to say that the leaders were hand-picked. Let's start with Putin in 1999. Yeltsin endorsed him. The Kremlin backed his campaign. But he was starting from a situation where anyone supported by the Kremlin seemed likely to lose. Yeltsin's approval ratings at that time were 6 or 8 percent.
It certainly wasn't that Putin was imposed on the public at that point. He became genuinely popular in the course of a few months, and he remained extremely popular. Though his polls have fallen a little in the last three months, he's still got approval ratings of 69 percent.
Now, he has gradually reduced freedoms and various kinds of civil rights. The media have become less free, and national television is obviously censored and self-censored and very supportive of the Kremlin. To some extent, that probably does influence approval ratings, but I think the fundamental reason why Putin remains popular to this day is that the economy in Russia has done so extremely well. Incomes have risen at 9 percent a year in real terms on average since 2000.
So are Russians able to choose their leaders?
Elections have become far from free and fair; there's been major manipulation. But in each case this has been more a matter of over-insurance than really changing the outcome. That is, credible polls suggest that Putin would have won in 2004, and Medvedev would have won in a landslide in 2008 even if they had held completely honest, free and fair elections. So the Russian public does bear some responsibility. Basically, they have approved of the leaders they have.
Now, there may come a point at which the majority will no longer approve of the people in power, and then we'll see whether the leaders in the Kremlin will be able to impose candidates on the Russian public. I'm really unsure that they'll manage. We're heading toward an election period now, and the ratings of Medvedev and Putin have fallen by about 10 percent in the last three months. It's clear that the political strategists in Moscow are panicking.
What's been the impact of Russia's natural resources on its politics? Is the country less free today than it otherwise would be because of its oil and gas?
The common view that oil is really bad for democracy is hard to demonstrate statistically if you look at all the countries in the world. Those scholars who do find some effect of oil and gas on democracy or on freedom of the press find a relatively small effect, especially in a country like Russia, which had a lot of oil and gas even before it became somewhat democratic.
However, I think in the psychology of those in the Kremlin, oil and gas did make a difference. There's one incident that Vladimir Milov remembers from 2004 – he was a former deputy minister of energy and an expert on the oil sector. He was sleeping late and got a call from German Gref, the minister of economics. German Gref said, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Fed, has been on the newswires saying that high oil prices are here to stay. Is this true? That symbolized the excitement. Russian ruling circles were realizing that the oil price was going up significantly, and this might be a change that would last. And I think that, then, we start to see an increase in anti-democratic measures.
Putin was really quite cautious in his first two to three years in power. Then in late 2003 we see the Khodorkovsky case [in which the oil billionaire was imprisoned and his firm's main assets were transferred at low prices to a state-owned rival company]. In late 2004 we see the abolition of elections for regional governors. There's more of a determined trend to try and increase control. It certainly seemed to those involved that this had something to do with the soaring oil prices.
Even as the economy has improved, Russia still has these terrible mortality rates that we read about in the press. You write that scholars are blaming this mainly on vodka?
A growing number of experts have come to the conclusion that alcoholism is, if not the major cause, one of the major causes of the big increase in mortality in Russia since the early 1990s. Maybe half of the additional deaths, or maybe even more than that, can be associated with alcohol abuse. The death rate has fallen a little bit since 2003, but it's still extremely high.
Now, why is there this huge problem? My view is that in the early 1990s, increased alcohol abuse was caused in part by the end of Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign, and especially the fall in prices, which was quite dramatic. Suddenly, instead of being able to buy 10 liters of vodka with the average wage, middle-aged men could buy 47 liters. So a group of serious alcoholics found themselves able to buy a really large amount of vodka, enough to drink themselves to death.
Many countries go through a similar type of problem at a certain point in industrialization. For Russia, it's either lasted a very long time or it's coming very late. It's a transitional problem. Over time, people substitute less lethal kinds of alcohol like beer and wine for vodka, and we've seen a big increase in beer consumption in Russia. To some extent, this is a hopeful sign.
Also in this period Russia fought wars to hang onto Chechnya. Are the underlying issues still present, and should we expect still more conflict?
The North Caucasus in general has been becoming more unstable and very worryingly so. It's not that there have been the same underlying causes all the way through. But now, 20 years of war and neglect and mismanagement of federal forces have created a situation in which there is a very serious problem of a terrorist insurgency, loosely organized if organized at all, but which is no longer seeking independence for Chechnya, but – if it's seeking anything – wants to establish an Islamic caliphate across the North Caucasus.
What we've seen in recent years has been a decrease in the number of terrorist attacks and guerilla raids in Chechnya, but a dramatic increase in the regions next to it – Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria. Experts on this really are very hopeless at this point. There doesn't seem to be very much at all that Moscow, even under the most enlightened leadership, could do. It's likely to remain this terrible problem which will continue to produce terrorist attacks, both in the North Caucuses itself and periodically in Moscow and Central Russia.
Producing military responses from Moscow? Could you talk about the state of the Russian military?
Those who are honest about it realize that the Russian army, conventional army, is really not fit to fight any major wars at this point. Very small wars like Georgia it can do, but, even there, with lots of problems. Russia is in the midst of extremely dramatic military reform, which is not being widely reported in the West. Last year alone, 200,000 officers were retired. So they're drastically reducing the officer force. They're cutting back the numbers. They're trying to take all of these patchwork divisions, which were only staffed to maybe 30 percent, and reorganize them into a more capable set of smaller units which can deploy rapidly to different areas. In the meanwhile, the conventional forces are in deep trouble.
Going forward, is there any reason to be hopeful about Russian politics under President Medvedev? Could he possibly break away from Prime Minister Putin?
I don't think so. It seems clear to me that the only hope for improvement under Putin and Medvedev is if Putin agrees with Medvedev. And I'm not completely pessimistic about that. I think they realize they need to do something different at this point. They're just not willing to do the obvious things that their critics call for, like political liberalization.
But they are clearly trying very hard at the moment to attract foreign investment. They are concerned about their fall in ratings. They are concerned about the fact that the whole of the intellectual elite has turned against them. This has been quite palpable, especially in the last three months: Even the people who a little while ago were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that Medvedev would come through with some of these plans for modernization and high-technology innovation and so on – they've given up at this point.