We Are Still Too Divided to Move Forward

16 january 2014

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. He is also the president of the Information Scholarship Education Center (ISE) and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute.

Resume: Society should find the optimal balance between a need to preserve its identity, on the one hand, and a readiness for continuous change and an active search and battle for its place in the new global landscape, on the other.

The discussion of the issue of preserving and developing human potential in Russia instantly suggests the question about the criteria for assessing this resource's efficiency in any country or society, especially in the rapidly changing conditions of the 21st century. I think society’s ability to join global processes without losing its own identity is the basic criterion for the efficiency of human potential. Society should find the optimal balance between a need to preserve its identity, on the one hand, and a readiness for continuous change and an active search and battle for its place in the new global landscape, on the other. If the balance is upset on one side or the other, society may find it difficult to preserve its human capital, let alone expand it.

Let’s look at some manifestations of extreme violations of this balance. On the one hand, North Korea is going all out to preserve its sovereignty, identity and fairly singular traditions. Many analysts believe North Korea is “more Korean” than its southern neighbor. However, North Korea has to pay for its “total privacy” by withdrawing from all global processes, with all the ensuing consequences.

On the other hand, there are small European countries (including former Soviet republics) that fit well into European and even global integration processes. That said, they are continuing to lose much of their national culture, education, and language, which is being pushed into the household. If 10%-12% of the population – the most active and educated working-age people – leave new European countries for Old Europe, the issue of preserving human potential can be hardly considered fully resolved.

Russia finds it easier to balance out its involvement in global affairs and protection of its sovereignty for objective reasons. It has powerful culture that does not require any special “protectionism.” Despite a host of problems, it would be unfair to describe Russia’s science and education as dying a slow death. Moreover, the cultural archetype of Russians has always been as very flexible and adaptable to the most diverse conditions. Russians have managed to survive and fulfill their potential not only in any climate – from the tundra to the tropics – but also in the most diverse ethnic, cultural and religious environments. In so doing they have adapted to and mixed with other cultures and ethnic groups, but without assimilating with them. The Russian Empire was built on this flexibility, and this is why Russia’s territorial expansion and colonization were so different from typical Western European models. I think that this cultural archetype still exists, which gives us good opportunities to adapt ourselves to the world and escape forced self-extinction.

Naturally, we must also search for a balance. I think our divided public opinion and the threat of its polarization on the issues of globalization and sovereignty are one of our most urgent problems. Simply put, those who fit well into the world of the 21st century often sacrifice their cultural identity to what is perceived as the imperative of globalization. By the same logic, those who want to preserve their identity often slide down to isolationism and start perceiving the outer world as primarily a source of new threats rather than opportunities.

In speaking about those who orient themselves to the outside world, I don’t want to limit myself to current or potential émigrés. I think the problem is deeper. A person may live in Moscow or any other Russian city and may still be drifting away, in terms of his culture, civilization and profession, from his country, values and traditions. This disruptiveness reveals itself not only at the individual level, but also in some social and professional groups and regions. Our regions also have very different prospects when it comes to international development and stability of cultural archetypes. Some people find it easier to join the new international division of labor, while others think that this is next to impossible. Some people stand to gain from their country’s openness, while others hope it will be as closed as possible.

In speaking about emigration, it is difficult to call a country successful that, according to different estimates, loses from 50,000 to 150,000 people a year. They go abroad on long-term contracts, change their citizenship or work for other societies and countries from home. Paradoxically, apart from energy and mineral resources, Russia's largest exports are minds and capital. It has excessive capital – both ordinary and human. Neither can find a place at home and has to move abroad where it is very much in demand and where it finds the necessary conditions for its development.

I believe our most important task as a nation is to restore some internal unity and overcome the gap between “Russia within” and “Russia in the world,” which, regrettably, is becoming wider every year. Speaking about “Russia in the world,” something has already been done to get our diasporas involved in cooperation, especially in advanced Western countries. I think these experiments have produced unequivocal results: progress was made on some issues and a number of blunders on others. The government knows very little of “Russia in the world” and is still captive to many simplistic and even false stereotypes on ways of working with this target audience.

As for “Russia within” (the part of our society that still does not know and largely does not want to live in the new globalized world), its position is often based on ignorance of foreign policy issues. When I talk about society, I’m referring to all of its members, not just the proverbial housewives and pensioners but a substantial part of our business, political elite and educational community. There is no need to visit any regions or backwater provinces – it is enough to go look at what is written in online forums to see that our knowledge of the outside world is still extremely low and our level of prejudice and illusions is incredibly high.

To some extent, this may be explained by a general lack of interest in international affairs and the outside world as a whole. Russia is demonstrating a trend towards isolationism, albeit not all along the line and not all the time. Paradoxically, despite our growing dependence on the outside world, we understand it less and less (if our understanding is not reduced to the knowledge of real estate prices in Europe or the ability to grapple with a wine list in a Paris restaurant).

We are losing the leading schools of experts on international affairs. Old generations of specialists on American, Arab and French studies are departing without leaving an adequate replacement. The expert potential on the CIS is obviously inadequate. Meanwhile, ignorance over international issues engenders fear and a desire to shut one’s doors to the outside world. I think this is a very dangerous phenomenon: in the current conditions, isolationism will be fatal for our society, economy, culture and eventually our state.

It is sad that we have almost no civilized discourse on foreign policy and international relations. By “civilized discourse” I mean discussion in which opponents may have different views without accusing each other of betraying national interests, kowtowing to the authorities or being paid for what they say. Civilized discourse implies a desire to approach the truth rather than a determination to destroy one’s opponent at any price.

We must actively educate people on foreign policy issues and current global affairs. We must teach them to live in the complicated and contradictory modern world. Here is an example. Russia joined the WTO, and in a year a high-ranking federal official told the public that few people in this country know how to benefit from this step. It is no surprise that our position on the WTO is exclusively defensive; we understand what it threatens us with but we do not see what we can gain from it.

It's not just pensioners and housewives who are not ready to live in the new world of the 21st century. The same applies to our municipal authorities, regional administrators, business people, many of our universities and up to the State Duma and federal ministers. Someone needs to work persistently with our key audiences that are taking part in international life. Otherwise, we are bound to lag still further behind other countries. Paraphrasing one astute Frenchman, I'd like to note: “If you do not want to deal with international issues, they will deal with you.”

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