A Novosibirsk Report for the Putin era?

Back in 1983, the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics was one of the relatively liberal and free-thinking corners of Soviet academic research, not least because of the presence of Abel Aganbegyan as its director and the newly-hired and subsequently legendary Tatyana Zaslavskaya (later founder of VTsIOM and now honorary president of the Levada Center). A team under Zaslavskaya produced a report on agricultural productivity that addressed many of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system and which informed the subsequent reform debate. This ‘Novosibirsk Report’ can thus be considered one of the foundational documents of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

I found myself thinking about this report when reading ОБЩЕСТВО И ВЛАСТЬ В УСЛОВИЯХ ПОЛИТИЧЕСКОГО КРИЗИСА (‘Society and the State in Conditions of Political Crisis’), a new document from the highly-regarded Center for Strategic Research (TsSR), a think tank backed by Kremlin über-insider-turned-loyal-critic Alexei Kudrin. A passage picked up by Brian Whitmore on the always-insightful Power Vertical blog is well worth re-quoting:

Our research shows that the crisis has become irreversible. regardless of the scenarios of its further development. Maintaining political stability, let alone a return to the pre-crisis status quo, is no longer possible … At this stage we view the probability of such a scenario as high because the escalation of violence has already started. As it spreads, the return of the protests to a peaceful course is becoming less and less likely.

The essence of the ‘Novosbirsk Report’ was not really about agriculture; it was using Soviet farming as a metaphor to discuss the wider crisis of the state, not least because that was the only safe way to deliver such a critique at the time. Nowadays, fortunately, people need not be so elliptical in the warnings, and the TsSR certainly pulls no punches. However, in many ways they are similar documents, pointing to structural problems based on excessive administrative control of the economy, which have potentially disastrous political consequences for the current Kremlin incumbents.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the ‘Novosibirsk Report’ in terms of empowering those who felt the status quo was untenable, not least because it was sober, scholarly, produced by trusted insiders and chimed with the observable facts on the ground. Although the modern Russian elite clearly is exposed to a vastly wider range of inputs and perspectives, a cacophony in which any one voice can too easily be lost, I wonder if the TsSR, especially thanks to Kudrin’s presence, will prove to have a more penetrating tone than most (especially is, as its president Mikhail Dmitriev moots, it joins the current bandwagon and sets up its own reform party). After all, no one can assume Kudrin of being some wide-eyed naif, US-funded enemy of Russian stability or bohemian dilettante. This report and similar analyses may help convinced more within the elite that the current model of Putinism offers them no hope of long-term stability (= a continued enjoyment of their current wealth and power), and empower and justify those already expressing some views. Streetpower, after all, rarely topples governments — even in Egypt — but what it often does is divide the elites, something that sometimes opens the door to meaningful reform, and sometimes brings a regime crashing down. (And to this extent, arguably Zaslavskaya and the ‘Novosibirsk Report’ were just as much responsible for the collapse of the USSR as Reagan and Yeltsin…)

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