Russia’s crisis must be put to use

Alexander Nikitin
(Foto: Jo Straube)

Publish date: June 10, 2009

Written by: Alexander Nikitin

The Norwegian authorities must take the opportunity Russia’s financial gives for a new democratic development for the country, Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin writes in this commentary.

The financial crisis has hit Russia hard. The country is economically on its knees and the adopted crisis package is not producing any results.

Tomorrow, Friday, June 12th, one of Russia’s premier economists and opposition leaders, Grigory Yavlinsky, is coming to Norway to speak about the crisis at a seminar that Bellona and The Norwegian Helsinki Committee arranged at Oslo’s Litteraturhuset.

On the same day, Norway’s parliament will be debating Norway’s foreign policy. Norwegian politicians will have much to learn by listening to Yavlinsky. He is among those who say the financial crisis has opened a window for Norway and other European nations to put their influence to work in Russia.

Yavlinsky is the leader of the Yabloko opposition party in Russia, and is one of very few opposition leaders in Russia who maintains strength and clout in Russian politics. He has compared Russia’s financial crisis relief package to giving aspirin to a terminally ill patient. You can dampen the symptoms, but can do nothing for the disease.

A leading economist like Yavlinsky doubts that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev have their eyes open to what is happening in Russia

The consequences of the crisis are huge both for the economy and society. Russia’s raw materials based economy is extremely vulnerable, and the rouble is now being devalued. This is almost a total failure of the state’s income and budget. Now, huge social problems, like rising unemployment, are coming in the wake of the crisis, as are inflation and social unrest in many regions.

Yavlinsky believes that the crisis, despite everything else, brings with it many opportunities due to the fact that Russia is in a complex situation and is more responsive to advice and pressure from the outside. Our neighbour to the east is now totally dependent on foreign investment, and needs to be a part of good western company.

The strong, self-assured and obstinate Russia – with a foreign policy traditionally characterised by divide and conquer methods – now needs to implement a much more conciliatory political line. The most important question that Norwegian politicians have to ask themselves is: How can Norway defend its interests and at the same time strengthen rights oriented state principles in Russia?

On Friday, Norwegian parliament will be dealing with the Foreign Ministry’s parliamentary report No. 15, Interests, responsibilities, and possibilities. The main line in Norwegian foreign policy. The report, among other things, says of Russia that “the political development, not the least where democracy, press freedom and human rights are concerned, is worrisome.”  

It further says that “without respect for international rules and standards, the international community will solely be the strongest, something that is not in Norway’s interest.”

The report violates the usual sprucing up tones Norwegian authorities use in relation to Russian. Before, they spoke of being practical, and saidthat Russia was stable and that relations were getting better. Now the pronouncements are more realistic.

The cosmetically appealing terms that Norwegian politicians had been occupying themselves with can now become an expensive lesson – for the Norwegian taxpayer as well. It is highly risky to invest in a country without an independent judiciary. This make-up job therefore bears much of the blame for Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor and the chemical transport firm Odfjell’s expensive problems in Russia, as well as Statoil’s complicated plight as a kind of hostage to the Shtokman oil field project.  

The new tendency the parliamentary report shows is very positive, but the report unfortunately says little about how Norway can concretely promote respect for democracy, freedom of the press and human and environmental rights in Russia.

Bellona values the turn-about operation of the politicians where it concerns the rhetoric over Norway’s relations with Russia, but now must come concrete efforts and demands to Russian authorities that can improve the situation in the country, such that Russia can become the stable and predictable neighbour in the north that Norway wants for itself.

This will only happen if Russia becomes a stable democracy with a free judiciary and fundamental freedoms, like freedom of speech and assembly within all the borders of the nation. Fortifying Russia’s civil society movement is essential to achieving the desired development. This must be Norway’s leading interest in its relationship to Russia.

The economic crisis’s fallout in Russia can lead to more democracy and more freedom. But it can also lead to even more totalitarianism, and an even more closed society.

Norwegian authorities have a responsibility to make sure Norway’s development goes the way that Norway is best served by. We can make fantastic use of the crisis to our own advantage, but this requires active and powerful politicians who are not afraid to take advantage of the opportunities that the economic crisis in Russia presents.

Aleksandr Nikitin is the director of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona (ERC Bellona), Bellona’s St Petersburg office.