Two-headed eagle: Look to your right
Russia has been described as a two-headed eagle, with one of its heads looking westward and the other looking eastward. The following is an argument why it should spend more time looking toward Western Europe and less time looking toward China.
It has been frequently stated that Vladimir Putin is in awe of the Chinese system of governance. There are however vast differences between Russia and China, and the real-world fundamentals in China that have worked in its present system do not exist in Russia nearly to the same extent.
The Chinese system has worked in China because China has a culture of hard work, and before the system was implemented the bulk of its people lived in abject poverty. This meant that there was a billion people who were willing to work hard for very little money. China was able to trade on this advantage by becoming the sweatshop of the world, and the result was vast economic growth for China. In Russia the situation is quite different.
First of all, the Russian people do not have the same culture of hard work as do the Chinese. Indeed, under Communism, Russian people were remarkably not hard-working. Neither are Russian people nearly as poor as were the Chinese people at the time of Deng's reforms. Which means that the advantages that made possible China's astronomical growth rates do not exist in Russia, and the export-led growth that was realized in China in last 30 years is not likely to happen in Russia to nearly the same extent if similar policies are put in place.
To actually succeed in the global economy the nation needs to trade on its advantages. While Russia has an advantage of having vast natural resources, that by itself has never been sufficient to maintain long-term economic growth. Commodity-based economies thrive for a while, then stagnate and decline when the prices for their commodities decline or when their resources run out. Sustained prosperity is always the work of the people; which is why resource-poor Japan was the world's number two economy until this year, and why resource-rich Congo is the poorest country in the world. The question that must be asked is, what can Russian people do at a world-class level, that they are not presently doing? And how can Russia gain from this? Clearly work habits and labor costs are not that advantage. What is?
One people-based advantage that Russia has over China and many other countries is intelligence. Russian people are some of the most highly educated, most knowledgeable, and most all-around intelligent, people on the planet. For Russia to trade on this advantage it needs policies that are favorable to the constructive expression of intelligence. The question that needs to be asked is therefore, Which policies are most conducive to constructive expression of intelligence? And what can Russia do to maximize and gain the most from this real advantage?
Under what system would scientists, engineers, mathematicians, professors, culture workers, and high-technology personnel, be most able and willing to do their work? And under what system would their work be utilized to greatest level?
Under what system would Russia's brightest minds willingly - and I mean, willingly - stay in Russia and do their work to benefit Russia instead of fleeing the country at first opportunity?
How can Russia reverse its brain drain and become an attractive place for highly intelligent people to do their work?
Very few intelligent people would accept being put through the brutal ordeals of dedovschina, or being harassed and assaulted by corrupt police and judges, or being told what they can think and what they can't think. Very few intelligent people would contribute their inventions to a system in which an invention has to spend seven years going through bureaucracy before anyone thinks of putting it into place. For Russia to truly tap into its greatest resource and its greatest advantage - the intelligence of its people - it needs a system that is favorable to intelligence and that empowers people to make the most of their intellectual gifts. And it occurs to me that a system of that sort does not exist in China. It exists to much greater extent in Japan and Western Europe, and it existed for a while in America until the right-wingers decided that academia was for commies and that they needed to defund and ignore science and let conmen teach people how to think.
Far be it from me to recommend to the country of my birth a Republican model in which the people blame everything on the government while failing to recognize the vast extent to which their nation's prosperity is owed to government science and government projects such as the Interstate and the Internet, and without which science and projects its economy would be a fraction of what it is now. Far be it from me to recommend a Republican model that claims ridiculously to practice liberty and integrity even as it lets right-wing conmen do all its thinking and maliciously persecutes anyone who does not buy into their party line and anyone who reveals what actually goes on. Far be it from me to recommend a Republican model that sees scientists as commie Satanists, innovative minds as narcissists and sociopaths, and students who take studies seriously as dangerous commie nerds. Right-wing America is undergoing a brain drain of its own right now. But Russia does not have to make the same mistakes.
When Gorbachev was in power, the intellectual circles in the former Soviet Union were not looking to make Soviet Union into a purely capitalist nation. They wanted socialism with a human face - a system more like that of Sweden or Netherlands; both highly successful countries in which prosperity, cultural richness, science, intelligence and civilized practices and civilized interactions coexist. Not Sweden, not Netherlands, not France, not Germany, not Japan, have seen a significant brain drain. That is because their systems are such that intelligent people are willing to stay there and contribute what they have to give.
In order to trade on its greatest advantage - the intelligence of its people - Russia needs to establish a system that rewards productive applications of intelligence. It needs to become a country that is attractive for intelligent people to live and to work. And that means two things. Do away with brutal, corrupt practices, such as dedovschina and court and police corruption, that send people scurrying out of the country at first opportunity; and reinvigorating Russia's science, once top-notch in the world, while reducing the bureaucratic red tape that keeps great inventions of Russian people from ever seeing the light of the day.
It makes little sense for Russia to be looking to China - a nation poorer than Russia in per-capita terms, and one with vastly different fundamentals - when there are working examples next door of nations that Russia could easily be more like and from incorporating whose policies Russia stands to vastly benefit. St. Petersburg is much more like Amsterdam than it is like Shanghai; Moscow, more like Paris than like Beijing. Of people in those places, many more look toward Western Europe than toward China. Why therefore look east when you can see next door a Western Europe, with living standards thrice that of Russia, with strong science and culture, with institutional transparency, with civilized interactions, and with social indicators better than those of United States?
I think that there is a fairly simple conclusion. Mr. Putin, you are looking in the wrong place. Stop looking toward China; look toward Western Europe. And put into place policies that trade on advantages that exist in Russia and not on advantages that exist in China.