RUSSIA IS NOT NORTH KOREA, BUT YES, IT CAN BECOME ONE
You hear it all the time when people, both Russians and foreigners, say that Russia is turning into something akin to North Korea. This comparison is obviously only rhetorical because by the standards of authoritarian regimes that existed in the last 100 years and still exist today, Putin’s can only be described as super-mild.
It’s hard to compare it not only with North Korea, but even with Turkey, a member of NATO and a key ally of the US. Whereas in Russia the number of political prisoners is hardly reaching 50, in post-coup Turkey there are dozens of thousands. Russia is also lagging behind Turkey in terms of media censorship.
Yet, Russia is degrading, institutionally and culturally. The brightest Russian intellectuals and businessmen are leaving the country in droves, while public discourse is becoming increasingly debilitating. The nuclear deterrent ensures that the system can’t be changed from the outside. Chronic social apathy and fatalism of post-genocidal society don’t leave much hope that it can be easily changed from the inside.
All of that means that over decades Russia can indeed turn into a Godzilla-sized North Korea by very gradually squeezing out everyone who is capable of acting on their own initiative and keeping only those who will silently cope with more repression and deteriorating economy.
That creates a problem for the entire world. While these days the gangster-ish Russian leadership is artfully playing a psycho while not actually being one, a more North Korean society will be pushing real psychos to the top, making an accidental nuclear conflict a greater possibility.
That’s why there is no alternative to engaging Russia, while antagonization only serves Kremli rulers and state propaganda. Engaging Russia, but not necessarily its political regime, which should indeed be indeed disengaged from its London bank accounts and Cote d’Azur villas. It is Russian people who should be engaged, over the heads of their government.
All problems with this giant country stem from the fact that after the fall of Communism Russians found themselves in a cultural vacuum, feeling that they were unwelcome in the Euroatlantic community and despised by most of its members. They have always lacked the beacon of integration that has forced society in Eastern Europe to change, despite a natural predilection for authoritarianism, patrimonialism and tribalism, which is now showing self in Poland and Hungary.
Reaching out to various segments of Russian directly, having a clearly formulated message for each of them, choosing the right words and making sure that the message finds its audience – all of that may change the landscape for the better. The problem though is that at the moment the West has no positive message for Russians that could inspire them to change, while the level of knowledge and understanding with regard to Russia is just pathetic. With issues Trump and Brexit, there is too much domestic mess to be dealt with before anyone get any fresh thoughts on Russia.