Russia needs to change – but by evolution not revolution
I'm not a man given to emotional outbursts. In fact, in my many years as a businessman, I've always tried to remain a little detached and not let my feelings get in the way of pragmatism. But in witnessing the changes going on in Russia today, I cannot help but feel a little stirring even in this hardened heart.
In the last six months we have become a bit unrecognisable to ourselves. As Russians, we have always loved to sit in the kitchen and criticise this and that and philosophise. But what we are seeing now is a true awakening, when all of us are feeling we have a part to play in the evolution of our nation. Citizens are on the streets demanding fair elections. Social media is buzzing with commentary. All of a sudden, the policies and plans that seemed to be set in stone have come into question, and the government is being pulled into dialogue with its people.
Twenty years ago, many Russians were out on the barricades defending the course of reform against the threat of regression. People who had no experience of living in a democratic society or a market economy were fighting tooth and nail for it. In the years that followed, a lot of people lost not only their life savings, but their faith in the power to effect positive change. Words like democracy and change became dirty words among a large part of our population and turned people off to the idea of participating in the political process.
Many of those who are now playing leading roles in expressing their dissatisfaction are too young to remember that time. They have grown up without portraits of Lenin on the walls. They are free to travel, or leave the country altogether, which many are doing. They can read whatever they like. They go to the market and they see they have a choice of what flavour of ice cream to buy, what brand of coffee to drink, but they do not have this same choice of political leadership, and they want it. The market economy has brought new values. Only now do we have a generation of Russians ready to enact true reforms and with an idea of why democracy and liberalism are values that belong to all of us. The genie is out of the bottle and it's not going back in. The era of "managed democracy" is over.
It is true that we are better off materially now, and have seen a period of relative economic prosperity on the back of high oil prices. But nothing is immutable. What worked for us yesterday will not work for us tomorrow. It is time to focus on writing the next chapter.
We need a nation that allows its citizens to realise their potential, where the government is not a barrier to development. Our next chapter will include strong independent institutions: the judicial system, a free press, direct elections of governors, increased public oversight of government.
We also need to change our economic course. Our present model will lead to catastrophe as soon as oil prices drop. State and private monopolies, social obligations that outweigh budget revenue, dependence on commodities and an antiquated tax system must be replaced by efficiency, transparency, and competitiveness. To achieve these goals, tough decisions will have to be made. Unpopular decisions. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but to adopt best practice. We should get the government the heck out of the way of individual initiative and focus on educating professionals and workers suited to the demands of today's world. Most importantly, we must enact systemic changes that will uncoil the serpent of corruption that is suffocating our development.
At last, we need to decide once and for all that we are a part of greater Europe, and that we share the values of European democracies. For too many years we have been obsessed with the notion that Russia has its own "special" fate, separate and distinct from everyone else. And, as a result, we are often regarded with mistrust and as somehow separate by everyone else. For the first time in a long time, we are not under any threat of attack from outside enemies. Let us take our seat at the table of developed nations as a fully fledged partner, and choose the path of democratic development and respect for inalienable human rights that is our rightful heritage.
There is no question in my mind that we are heading in this direction. The only question now is will our road be bumpy and perhaps bloody, or will we avoid some of the pitfalls we've seen in our region and in others and pull off a gradual transition before things reach the boiling point? I, for one, am for the latter. Evolution, not revolution.
The will to change is what we need now. And, above all, common sense.