All Quiet in Russia under a Wikileaks Sky

El País - Dec 14, 2010

Article by Carmen Claudin, Research Director at the Centro de Estudios y Documentación Internacionales de Barcelona (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs – CIDOB)


The Kremlin surely rests easy, at least for the time being. Maybe people are even satisfied that “this” is happening to the United States, although the idea it might someday happen to them is disturbing. In any case, President Medvedev has just recognised, pragmatically and with a good dose of fair play, that it’s not all that bad and that the cables from the Russian embassies wouldn’t be so different.

The main thing, however, is the framework he has chosen for making his first statements on the matter. His remarks, even if out of session, at the Russia-EU Summit are a sign that in this episode, which is basically a blow to the national pride of the United States, he gives priority to preserving good relations with the West. Not even the NATO Plan for the defence of the Baltic States has been deemed worthy of more comment by the Russian leaders.

There is little hard information on Russia in Wikileaks. The rest is opinion, analysis and interpretation by US diplomats. The only interesting exercise on reading the cables is to confirm whether the picture that emerges squares with what one already knew, or whether it sheds any light on matters that are subject to greater speculation, for example the relations between Putin and Medvedev, or which of the two will be the presidential candidate in 2012.

The conclusion is that what comes out of all this brings no surprises or has anything new to say, and the mystery of 2012 will foreseeably have to wait until the last moment when Putin announces the combination just before the elections. However, the portrait of Russia that emerges is quite accurate.

Among the different telegrams, two matters seem to have especially irritated Putin: the comparison with Batman and Robin of his tandem with Medvedev, and the observations about corruption.

The former, nonetheless, is merely anecdotal and only confirms what everyone already knows: Putin is the boss. While nobody has any doubts about this, what is not known is how this improbable couple has held out so long (no one can imagine Putin in a subordinate role, however much he might be playing to the gallery) or the inner workings of the relations between the two of them. None of that has filtered out. What is known is that there are tensions, apparently on a daily basis, between the teams and circles around each man. These strained relations resurface in public debate – among experts, businesspeople and politicians – on what the idea of modernisation means for the political nature of the regime. This is a real and quite rich discussion, clearly evidencing a divide between a conservative-technocratic focus and another that is manifestly liberal-democratising.

Corruption is indubitably the biggest millstone for the economy and politics in Russia and also for the country’s modernisation project, that is, if words really do translate into political volition. A rise or fall of one or two points in the Transparency International ranking does not say a great deal about the improvement or worsening of the situation, this being something the US ambassador tries to dissect. The simple fact is that there is nobody in Russia who doesn’t know that corruption has gone sky-high since Putin took power, and this has come hand-in-hand with the beginning of the country’s economic growth.

If the rhetoric of the fight against corruption that abounds in the speeches of Putin and Medvedev is to bear some fruit, substantial characteristics of the political regime in Russia will need to change, starting with some of the most important elements, such as the so-called "vertical of power", which gives the state a predominant role in public life – interference with freedom of expression or with key economic and trade issues such as energy, dressed up as an instrument of foreign policy – or the judicial system in whose independence few people in the country believe. There is nothing to indicate that anyone in the Russian ruling elite is really interested in making this happen and it is curious to hear Putin and Medvedev talking about corruption as if it were an annoying phenomenon that has sprung up in a world that has nothing to do with themselves. For the moment, therefore, there is little hope in that quarter. As pointed out by one of the cables, people are already so used to corrupt practices that many even feel comfortable with them and the predictability that accompanies them.

What we do not get through Wikileaks, however, is that Russia is not only that. For example, the New Economic School, one of the most serious and interesting recent universities in Moscow, has found it necessary to warn on its website that the institution "is governed by moral values" and that "there is no corruption in the School". The state of its facilities makes it clear that this is indeed the case, and yet the centre is full of motivated students and is gaining prestige. Here is where hope lies: there are "other" Russians.

Carmen Claudín is Research Director at the Centro de Estudios y Documentación Internacionales de Barcelona (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs – CIDOB)