Room for debate: For more than twenty years, Russia’s leaders have professed a “unique path” for the nation and demanded respect from Western partners. But, thus far, there has been little to show for it except political and economic stagnation (part 1 of 2).

President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with his Cabinet in the Kremlin, Nov. 23. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "What kind of equality does Russia want in its relationship with the West? [Part 2]"

Ten years ago, then Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney paid a visit to Kazakhstan, where he met with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and lavishly praised him for his contribution to the economic and political development of his Central Asian country. 

Moscow might have overlooked this visit except for one important circumstance. Just several days before his visit to Kazakhstan, Cheney bluntly lambasted Russia for its violation of human rights. Russian experts, diplomats and parliamentarians created a great deal of buzz around this and pointed fingers at what they saw as the “double standards of American diplomacy.” There was only a single question to ask: Why is Kazakhstan better than Russia?

In fact, such a response to Cheney’s visit was not particularly polite toward Kazakhstan, officially one of Russia’s closest and strongest allies. At the same time, nobody in Moscow was able to understand the bitter irony in the entire situation. In fact, as expressed by Cheney, the United States seemed to require much higher political standards from Russia than from Kazakhstan.

After all, they thought, Russia was a country with one thousand years of history, a country that had produced composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and scientist Andrei Sakharov. In contrast, Kazakhstan was a post-Soviet republic, which had existed only 15 years at that moment and which was only starting on its national path.     

This might look like a paradox, but the fact that the Western powers saw Russia as a country that could meet high political and social standards was actually a good reason for celebration. However, instead of getting rid of its totalitarian past and devoting efforts to creating democratic institutions, the Kremlin and the significant part of Russian society seemed to prefer to ruminate over their post-Soviet inferiority imperial complex. As a result, they relentlessly demanded respect from the West.

Anti-Western rhetoric and ostentatious military and foreign policy moves as well as mobilization against the European Union and the United States are the tool for the Kremlin to maintain the legitimacy of the country’s current political regime. For Russian society, it is a sort of psychological therapy, a way to prove to oneself that modern Russia is trying to return to the status of a great power and revise the results of the Cold War.

Today Russia denies its defeat in the long-standing confrontation with the West, despite the fact that in the beginning of his first presidential tenure Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia would need to reach at least the economic and political level of Portugal in 15 years.

The Soviet Union’s moral and political legacy turns out to have been much heavier and difficult to endure than it was thought in the early 1990s. The difficulties, which people were facing during the first post-Soviet decade, were too burdensome, so that the Soviet revanchism and yearning for the idealized image of the Russian empire overshadowed the necessity to think about the future.

Russia's politicians, who are supposed to think over the desired image of the future and come up with the country's strategy, do nothing in this direction both because they cannot do so and, first and foremost, are reluctant to do it.

The domineering idea of the ruling bureaucracy and state-controlled business to preserve power as long as possible is leading to economic stagnation in the country, the crisis of democratic institutions and increasing international isolation. Amidst this background, any talk about so-called "multipolarity," "equality among civilizations", "the Western hegemony" and deficiencies of democracy look like nothing but a camouflaged attempt to cover up the Kremlin's inability and reluctance to reform the country. 

Countless references to the example of Communist China with its unofficial motto "Development without democracy" are not well grounded enough if one looks at the problem from a closer perspective. And it is not a matter of Russia (unlike China) having been forcefully urbanized under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It is not a matter of the basic demands of people in these two countries being different. It is not a matter of China's Communist regime having started reforms earlier than the Soviet leadership.

In fact, the key difference between Russia and China is the system of values. Chinese values are based on Confucianism, with its emphasis on respect for hierarchy, wise elders and their status. China has a different view of the role of individuality and freedom of choice, which are relegated to something secondary in China's values system.

Meanwhile, Russia follows the political concepts of the Judeo-Christian civilization, which is based on the inherent worth of human beings and their freedom. The entire history of Russia is the history of the fight for personal dignity and its defense against the abuses of the state authorities. All talk about the "unique" character of Russia's path come to an end, when the advocates of the concept are asked to give specific details and examples.

Read the interview with Levada Center's Lev Gudkov: "Russia's national identity through the lens of the Kremlin's foreign policy"

Usually, after incoherent talk about Russia's so-called "spirituality" and “unique path,” stalwarts will shift focus from the substance of the discussion to tangents like same-sex marriage. However, such Western countries as Poland, Lithuania, Hungary or Greece didn't legalize same-sex marriages, yet don't see their own path as "unique" or non-Western only because of this. They just see themselves as democracies, as part of the Transatlantic community of free peoples. Actually, Russia would be much better off joining this community rather than incessantly trying to undermine it.

Attempts to use Russia's cultural uniqueness and peculiarities of its national identity to justify and romanticize authoritarianism were there for a long time. Twenty years ago, such ideas were realtively rare. Only chauvinistic fringe outsiders like writer Alexander Prokhanov propagated them. Yet today this narrative — the "unique path" ideology — has already become mainstream for politicians and, sadly, for the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This ideology serves as a tool to justify the totalitarian Soviet past for the Russian audience. Yet, in reality, this adds up to attempts to put Russia in opposition to the West in a purely artificial way. This exercise’s only goal is utilitarian: to present authoritarianism as the most natural method to rule Russia.

However, such rhetoric reveals the craven apologia of Russia's modern day authorities. It and the resulting anti-Western foreign policy leads to isolation, sanctions, increasing dependence on hydrocarbons’ export plus rampant corruption, instead of respect, economic growth, reforms and effective institutions. All these repetitive demands of "respect" from the West serve as a weapon of last resort for a regime that has failed to deliver on real progress.   

Shortly after the Crimean euphoria disappeared it became clear that the political elites and the Russian society at large do not have any strategy for the future. Everything drowns in weird attempts to turn back time and make the world believe that this is possible, moreover that this is for the better.

Also read the interview with Carnegie Moscow Center's Andrei Kolesnikov: "Why the Kremlin neglects strategic thinking"

The country might be able to survive this condition for some time, but not for long. With major problems, such as economic crisis, political isolation and technological backwardness, romanticizing Soviet-style imperial authoritarianism and heavy-handed revanchist rhetoric stand in glaring contradiction to Russia’s real national interests. Recognition comes with real achievements and civilized self-respect not whining and threats.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Konstantin Eggert is a political commentator and host at Dozhd, Russia’s premiere independent TV channel.