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Elena Alekseenkova

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

What is more important – actual vulnerability to external economic risks, or the perception of this vulnerability as a negative factor? Integration into the global economy always involves the conscious limitation of national sovereignty.

It is already quite clear that Russia’s neighbours perceive the country as a guarantor of security, but not as an economic model to be followed or emulated. The creation of the EAEU is without a doubt the most significant attempt to build an economically attractive model of development since the collapse of the Soviet Union, although it is still too early to comment on the results of the endeavour.

In actual fact, there are a number of factors that suggest the legitimacy of Russia’s political regime is at risk of being eroded. These include, first of all, the gradual yet steady increase in the number of people leaving the country to permanently reside elsewhere. Second, in the current foreign policy climate, the number of people wishing to leave Russia acquires a special significance.

In addition to the outflow of human capital, we should also mention the scale of capital flight from Russia and the very modest results of the “de-offshorization” policy of the economy, which also raises questions about legitimacy and state sovereignty.

Hypothetically speaking, let us assume that the level of personal trust to the President (not the government) is so high because the President does not get the opportunity to actively interfere in the daily lives of the people on a regular basis. And when he does, he is highly effective (as a rule, following his big annual press conferences), which in turn reinforces the high level of trust. At the same time, there is a consistent lack of trust in those institutions that regularly inject themselves into the private lives of individuals.

The construction of a “mobilization economy” will be a key test for the legitimization of power – will it be enough to have “great power” as a national idea?

In his article “How to Survive in a Trench Warfare,” RIAC Director General Andrey Kortunov rightly points out that Russia’s foreign policy in recent years has gradually become a source of national pride, and one of the reasons for this is the restoration of state sovereignty. Indeed, the military successes in Syria and the extremely convincing portion of the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly devoted to national defence leave no doubt in the public consciousness about Russia’s military and political sovereignty.

The situation is far more complicated when it comes to the “economic” component of the country’s sovereignty, however. In addition to the fact that, on the global scale, Russia is merely a “three-percent superpower” (a country that makes up no more than 3 per cent of the gross world product), the degree to which the country’s economy depends on the global economic and political situation, and its capacity for influencing it, is also important. This dependence has been demonstrated convincingly over the past few years – from the drop in oil prices and the 2015 crisis to the most recent “crash” of the Russian rouble and the falling stock value of Russian companies as a result the latest sanctions introduced by the United States. All these factors naturally influence public perception of the country’s economic sovereignty. The Russian leadership assures the people that it is actively working to lessen this dependence, trying to demonstrate that the country is in good shape as far as sovereignty is concerned, and that it will defend this sovereignty at all costs (let us recall here the talk about transitioning to mutual settlements in national currencies, the launch of the “Mir” bank card, the attempts to create a Russian version of the SWIFT system, the opportunities to purchase technology in third countries, etc.).

However, the Russian economy is still heavily dependent on outside factors, and there are serious risks it will inevitably succumb to if its access to borrowed funds is restricted to any significant degree and if the United States exerts pressure on businesses in third countries for cooperating with Russian companies that are under sanctions. This has not yet become a part of the “common knowledge” in the public consciousness, but we are already seeing the effects – even the Swiss company Glencore has announced its intention to review its contracts with Rusal in light of the latest U.S. sanctions, and Japanese traders now refuse to trade in Russian aluminium. And this dependence undoubtedly constitutes a limitation to Russia’s sovereignty in the strict economic sense.

But the question is: What is more important – actual vulnerability to external economic risks, or the perception of this vulnerability as a negative factor? Integration into the global economy always involves the conscious limitation of national sovereignty. It is similar to the situation with international organizations, whether it be the United Nations or the World Trade Organization – a country wishing to join has to agree to follow certain rules, even if these rules restrict the ability of the country to act in its own national interests. Despite this, most states choose integration over self-sufficiency, as it gives them access to resources located outside their own jurisdictions. But if these rules of the game are completely unacceptable, then there are essentially just two options: you can make up your own rules and play alone (in which case you do not need to wait for international recognition of your status even as a regional power); or you can try to get a significant number of countries to adopt your rules. But this requires a great amount of time and effort. There is no point in jumping out of the boat before you have built a new one.

As for Russia’s influence on the global economy, we can say that it is noticeably more modest. Of course, the country does have a tangible impact on certain industries (for example, in the aerospace industry and raw materials and arms trade). This influence can be felt in certain regions. For example, the economies of many former Soviet countries are effectively “tied” to the Russian economy. A few cases in point: at least one quarter of the Armenian population works in Russia; half of the GDP of Tajikistan is made up of remittances from migrants; and 100 per cent of Belarusian dairy exports go to Russia.

But the question arises once again: What is more important – the very fact that the Russian economy influences those of its neighbours, or the perception of this influence? Here too, the perception of this influence is by no means unequivocal in the public consciousness. A significant portion of the populations of these countries, as well as certain political circles, perceive this dependence on economic interaction with their neighbor in a negative light. It is a complex view of the economic relationship with Russia that is shared by many in the former Soviet countries and was most clearly demonstrated in the discussions on the accession of several of these states to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or the signing of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union. And perception played a huge role here too: losing a measure of economic sovereignty to the European Union is not seen as a negative in these countries (“I’ll cut off my nose to spite my face”), while Russia’s economic influence invariably carries negative connotations. In such a scenario, there is the risk that the further strengthening of Russia’s economic influence will be seen in a negative light, rather than the other way around.

It is already quite clear that Russia’s neighbours perceive the country as a guarantor of security, but not as an economic model to be followed or emulated. The metaphor presented by Andrey Kortunov of a “fire fighter” who is ready to come to the rescue in the event of a fire is particularly relevant here. The creation of the EAEU is without a doubt the most significant attempt to build an economically attractive model of development since the collapse of the Soviet Union, although it is still too early to comment on the results of the endeavour. However, it is already quite obvious that all the EAEU member countries are keen to “diversify” their economic ties. The European Union continues to be the primary donor, economic partner and investor for the majority of the countries in the region. In addition, Armenia and Kazakhstan have signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with the European Union within the past two years; Belarus and Kazakhstan are actively developing the multi-vector nature of their economies and building up their cooperation with the European Union as part of the Eastern Partnership; and the region as a whole is waiting for the launch of the Chinese “One Belt One Road” initiative, as they understand that there are simply no other sources of financing for the development of transport and infrastructure connectivity at present, nor are there likely to be any in the foreseeable future. So, Russia will still have to fight to maintain its economic influence in its proverbial “backyard,” especially given the fact that the creation of the EAEU has led to greater economic interdependence within the Union, although the risk of falling under the U.S. sanctions as a result of association with Russia has also increased. And this, in turn, increases the risk of Russia’s economic influence being perceived in a negative light.

Continuing our exploration of the constituent components of sovereignty, we should talk about another equally important element, one often mentioned by the constructivists – namely, sovereignty as a reflection of legitimacy. Many constructivist researchers pay great attention to the significance of national identity, “ontological security” and the sociocultural foundations for legitimization in the establishment and functioning of sovereignty.[1] The key factors here are ones of trust and the durability of social ties, which serve as latent support for strengthening the sovereignty of the state.

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At first glance, it would seem that Russia has no problems in this respect. The regime is highly consolidated. The President received over 76.69 per cent of the votes in the recent general election, for which there was a high turnout. A total of 56.43 million Russians voted for Putin, which is more than in 2000, 2004 and 2012 in absolute terms. So, what doubts could there possibly be? In actual fact, there are a number of factors that suggest the legitimacy of the political regime is at risk of being eroded.

These include, first of all, the gradual yet steady increase in the number of people leaving the country to permanently reside elsewhere – that is, people who, for one reason or another, refuse to live in the zone of influence of Russian sovereignty (changing sovereignty). Since the early 2010s, there has been an increase in the number of people leaving Russia for the traditionally popular destinations of the United States (from 1241 to 1437) and Germany (from 3236 to 3956), as well as a three- to fourfold increase in the number of Russians moving to neighboring countries – Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Second, in the current foreign policy climate, the number of people wishing to leave Russia acquires a special significance. According to a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in July 2017, one out of every ten Russian citizens (10 per cent) would like to move abroad permanently, with the younger generation expressing the greatest desire to leave the country (25 per cent in the 18–24 age category and 16 per cent in the 25–34 age category). Tellingly, the reason cited most often for this is dissatisfaction with the policies pursued by the country’s leadership. While it is true that the inflow of migrants from the former Soviet countries compensates for the outflow of the population from Russia, as well as for the natural population decline, the number of so-called “compatriots” coming to the country is on the decline. Meanwhile, economic migrants, for whom issues of the legitimacy of power and the sociocultural foundations of sovereignty are hardly relevant, are on the rise. In addition to the outflow of human capital, we should also mention the scale of capital flight from Russia and the very modest results of the “de-offshorization” policy of the economy, which also raises questions about legitimacy and state sovereignty.

Third, in the sociocultural sense, presidential elections in Russia are more about showing trust in the President than the political system as a whole. There is a very big difference between trust in a person and trust in an institution. While trust in the President is very high in Russia, generalized trust (trust at the level of civil society) and institutional trust (trust in other political institutes) is practically absent. For example, trust in the government (35 per cent), political parties (19 per cent), the Federal Assembly (33 per cent for the State Duma and 35 per cent for the Council of the Federation) and the prosecutor’s office (33 per cent) is exceptionally low (in Western political science, the power is considered legitimate if supported by over 30 per cent of the population). The key question here is whether there the level of personal trust in the President will be sufficient to build an effective mobilized economy.

Hypothetically speaking, let us assume that the level of personal trust is so high because the President does not get the opportunity to actively interfere in the daily lives of the people on a regular basis. And when he does, he is highly effective (as a rule, following his big annual press conferences), which in turn reinforces the high level of trust. At the same time, there is a consistent lack of trust in those institutions that regularly inject themselves into the private lives of individuals. If we turn to Albert Hirschman’s typology of social action, then, given the low level of trust in most government institutions, we can hardly talk about the “loyalty” of the Russian people.[2] Rather, it makes sense to talk about the “exit” strategy employed by the majority of Russian people, which is characterized by the desire to avoid any interaction with the institutions of power as effectively as possible. In the context of “mobilizing the economy”, this strategy will evidently become inaccessible in practice, as “mobilization” should affect everyone. And Russia already has experience in this area.

Thus, the construction of a “mobilization economy” will be a key test for the legitimization of power – will it be enough to have “great power” as a national idea? A “mobilization economy” leads to the high level of government intervention in the lives of each individual and the sharp reduction in the possibility of implementing an “exit” strategy. This means a test of loyalty of the part of society that did not vote for Putin in the general election (approximately two-thirds of the population), and we know nothing about the level of their loyalty. So, this basis of sovereignty will face the most serious test in case the conflict between Russia and the West worsens and the country moves towards a mobilization economy.


1. J. Mitzen, Ontological Security in World Politics. // European Journal of International Relations 12, 3, 2006; B. Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations. London, 2008; A. Zarakol, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge, 2010; The Return of Geopolitics in Europe? Social Mechanisms and Foreign Policy Identity Crises, edited by S. Guzzini. Cambridge, 2012; G. Bettiza, Civilizational Analysis in International Relations: Mapping the Field and Advancing a “Civilizational Politics” Line of Research. // International Studies Review 20, 4, 2014.

2. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Harvard University Press, 1970.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
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     4 (4%)
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