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Helping Russia Modernize

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.




The global financial crisis has hit Russia hard. The country’s gross domestic product declined almost 9 percent in 2009, and income from energy sales have dropped sharply. Inflation and unemployment are both rising, and the number of anti-government protests is increasing across the country. Against this background, Medvedev has sought to highlight the need for a thorough political and economic modernization of Russia. He has described Russia as “a primitive and chronically corrupt economy based on raw materials” and fixated on the old habit of relying on the state to solve its problems.

The problem is that Medvedev appears to have little support in Russia for his modernization agenda. Nor does he have a team to implement modernization in key sectors because of a lack of qualified professionals. There is no rush of well-qualified Russians returning from abroad to help fix the economy. Furthermore, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is resisting all but cosmetic changes. He believes that “modernization” means making the current political and economic vertical-power structure more efficient instead of fundamentally changing the model by liberalizing and diversifying it.

The European Commission has put forward its own views on what the proposed “modernization partnership” between the EU and Russia should cover. Top on the list is the rule of law. This also reflects the concerns of Medvedev, who has repeatedly drawn attention to the problems of “legal nihilism” in Russia. The absence of the rule of law not only hampers the development of a modern, civil society but also discourages Western investment in Russia. The complicated business legislation, which is all too often wide open to different interpretations, is another major problem for foreign investors.

The EU already makes some contribution to strengthening the rule of law in Russia. The EU could also assist in drafting legislation for safeguarding foreign investments and private property. But change has to start at the top, and rhetoric must be followed by action. There needs to be a vast increase in people-to-people contacts, and the process of abolishing visas should also be accelerated. The EU should support Russia in its modernization agenda, but such support needs to be conditional on Russia agreeing to a series of concrete actions to move toward a more open and democratic society.



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