Russia’s neoliberal elites are thrivingSun 1:12 pm +01:00, 21 May 2023
Has the war in Ukraine cleansed Moscow of its infamous neoliberal parasites?
I emailed this question to academic and author Karine Bechet-Golovko, who graciously agreed to offer her thoughts on this often misunderstood subject.
Bechet-Golovko is a doctor of law, visiting professor at Moscow State University, president of the Franco-Russian association of jurists, and author of numerous articles on political-legal developments in Russia.
Her blog, Russia Politics, is a must-read. Follow her on Twitter and Telegram.
Note: The interview was conducted in French. Thank you to my esteemed friend Modeste Schwartz for providing guidance with the English translation.
In 2018 you wrote a book about the clash between neoliberal and conservative factions in Russia. How has the war in Ukraine affected this power struggle? In the early days of the conflict, there were hopes that Russia’s neoliberal elements would be removed from the government (the exit of Chubais, for example). But is it accurate to say the conservative/patriotic bloc has purged the neoliberals from power?
Indeed, one could have expected that Russia’s patriotic political elites would take over with the beginning of the military operation, but this was not really the case.
Apart from a few departures, such as that of Chubais or Kudrin, all the neoliberal political elites who were in place before February 2022 are still in power and, in general, their globalist dogmas are not questioned.
There is still no questioning of the neoliberal management model, which has led to particularly harmful reforms in the healthcare system. And there is no questioning of reforms in education and research, which has diminished the quality of students, as well as research.
There is no questioning of the digital cult or the miracle of high technologies, which, while waiting to lead Russia down the road to global happiness, are endangering the security of the state and slowing down the development of the real economy—economic development that Russia needs so much today.
On the other hand, we are witnessing a relative revival of industrial production, not only in the military sphere, but also in the civil sphere. This means that Russia has become aware of the need for national production.
Basically, the Russian political elites are still unable to break out of the globalist thinking model. They want to change some of the arcs of this model, trying to diversify the blocks within this model, but they do not question it. This is their weakness.
We see it, for example, with the renewal of the grain deal conducted under the aegis of the UN, with Turkey as an intermediary, which was supposed to fight against global hunger by guaranteeing the delivery of Ukrainian grain to needy countries.
In reality, only a little more than 2% of this grain reaches the countries in need. With the active collaboration of Russia, the main part of this agreement allows Ukraine to maintain its presence in the Western grain market.
The vast majority of Russian political elites do not consider themselves to be at war and are trying to ride out the storm. Tolstoy already wrote about the war against Napoleon: most of the elites around the Emperor sought above all to protect their interests. Unfortunately, human nature is immutable.
As for the intellectual and academic elites, unfortunately the conclusion is not more optimistic. They have been financed by Western grants for 30 years, which has totally conditioned their way of thinking.
No major intellectual “break” from the West has been made so far: The research themes of Russian public grants follow the globalist line (sustainable development, personal data management, gender, immigration, climate change, digital transformation).
But on the whole, we can see a slight inflection of the discourse, and the reintroduction of key concepts in the middle of this globalist swamp, as with the concept of sovereignty, which was suddenly put forward at the Saint Petersburg Legal Forum.
The cultural elites, on the other hand, are the ones who have been most affected: those who refused to support their country’s position have left—mostly so as not to lose their advantages, not to find themselves “banned” in the global world, which they mainly belong to. The others are either silent, for the time being, or have made their choice and support their country.
Generally speaking, one senses a distancing of the elites from the people, who are naturally more conservative and truly patriotic, which is dangerous for the stability of the country, especially in times of war.
State Duma Deputy Sergei Levchenko recently described Russia’s growing reliance on China as a form of “import substitution” that would not fundamentally change the economic model developed by Russia’s pro-Western elites in the 1990s (i.e., instead of being a resource pipeline for the West, Moscow is becoming an appendage of the East). Do you think this criticism is valid? It seems to contradict the popular view that Moscow’s pivot to China is a geopolitical and economic improvement over its seemingly failed relationship with the West.
I think it is necessary to qualify this statement. On the one hand, yes, we can see the strengthening of Russia’s dependence on China, but also on Turkey, both of whom have benefited from the rewiring of Russia’s “global” economic circuits. The so-called “global” route going south from St. Petersburg to Bombay is about to be finalized, and it contributes to this transformation, which is also a form of diversification.
The problem does not seem to me to be Russia’s dependence on China, as no country can really be self-sufficient. The problem lies in the fact that the pillars of globalization are not seriously challenged and block the development of Russia’s real economy.
Russia is turning towards other continents, since the West is closing its doors. In this sense, it is diversifying, which should strengthen its independence.
But Moscow is looking for a substitution, not a reconfiguration, which sometimes seems to increase its dependence on others.
China is one of the central countries of globalization, and ideologically its vision of man and society are extremely dangerous for Russia, especially since both nations are followers of the digital cult.
One can also wonder about this privileged “partnership” with Turkey, which also sells combat drones to Ukraine. Of course, this affects Russia.
In this sense, Russia is finding it difficult to break out of the globalist way of thinking, which became the sole ideology after the fall of the USSR. And this hinders its development, both economic and political. And it has also hindered the restoration of Russia’s true sovereignty.
In a recent article you posed a very unsettling question: Does Wagner CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin represent the zenith of “neoliberal excess”, which could “allow external forces, voluntarily or not, to bring down Russia from within”? How serious do you think this threat is? “Turbo-patriots” such as Igor Strelkov believe the war in Ukraine could lead to a “1917 scenario” in Russia.
The model of private armies, in its modern version, is an Anglo-Saxon model. These armies are generally employed to do work on foreign soil that the national army cannot do openly, either because it would be illegal or because it would be illegitimate.
These armies can be formally employed by foreign governments in their national wars or fight against terrorism. They can discreetly intervene in a foreign country in the interest of their own government, allowing it to remain in the shadows. They can be brought in to do the dirty work, without a flag.
But they are never used on national soil, because in this case they weaken the position of state power. In any case, this was true before the use of Wagner by Russia on Russian soil.
The problem with Prigozhin’s use of a private army is a systemic one. It does not matter whether he himself is a patriot or simply a businessman. Objectively, Russia is making a strategic mistake by employing a private army in a war that is, or should be, a war for the liberation of national territory.
Let us remember that the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are, according to Russian law, parts of the national territory since the amendment of the Russian Constitution last fall. It is therefore not a question of a major anti-terrorist operation, as many in Russia would like to suggest, but of a war.
However, after 30 years of neoliberal reforms of the army, which consisted of replacing soldiers (who are too expensive), with technologies considered more efficient according to managerial logic, Russia objectively lacked men.
The great globalist credo supporting these reductions of national armies (except in the United States) was based on the assertion that in the global world, there is no more traditional large-scale war.
We see that this postulate is false: the global world is itself the harbinger of war, because it does not tolerate any dissent, which it crushes by force of arms when political threats are not sufficient. The conflict in Ukraine is a perfect example.
To cope with this resurgence of traditional war, Russia has appealed to Wagner, instead of mobilizing on a large scale.
This creates a false sense of ease, but it also allows the elites, who are still reluctant to recognize this war as a war, to inhibit the strengthening of real patriotism among the population—which, once you leave the front, is incompatible with Moscow’s gentle hesitation and desire for normalization, regardless of the human cost.
I enjoy reading your blog because to me it feels very…Russian! In my experience, many Westerners who are sympathetic to Russia are extremely hostile to even mild criticisms of the Russian government. In English-language “alternative media”, it’s a terrible sacrilege to question the omnipotence of Russia’s leadership and elites. Does this same phenomenon exist in the French-language “alternative media”? If so, what do you think is the cause of it?
This phenomenon of the exaltation of Russia is widely found in French-speaking networks, and I assume it must be the same everywhere. There are, in my opinion, several reasons for this.
First of all, I would say some “pro-Russian” Westerners want to love Russia—so to speak—“against” their own country. Looking at Russia, they want to see everything they can no longer find in their own homeland, and refuse to see the nuances of Russian society, which is particularly complex.
Secondly, the need to believe, to be reassured, is part of human nature.
When people create a comfortable myth to endure everyday life, and hope for a better future, they cannot bear to be brought back to reality, which would force them to leave their comfort zone—even if illusory.
Finally, there are those who do not speak or read Russian. They do not believe the French media, which they consider too biased, and for good reason. And so they have taken refuge in the alternative media, which gives an idyllic view of the situation.
They do not have the objective possibility to understand Russia in depth, and any mistake of the Russian authorities is systematically decreed to be part of a big secret game where Moscow is 50 moves ahead.
But there is another group of people, who wonder, think, and try to understand the meaning of things—and it is a great pleasure to communicate with them, even through a blog.
Thank you, Karine!
Have a restful Sunday, friends.