I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.
Winston Churchill, 1st Lord of the Admiralty, BBC Radio broadcast Oct. 1, 1939.
In recent speeches to the United Russia annual congress and to the Federation Council, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has sounded anew a theme that has been present in Russian politics since the days of Tsar Peter I the Great and Tsarina Catherine II the Great: the Russian economy is not as advanced as Europe’s or the United States.
In his speech to the Federation Council, President Medvedev stated that
We need to recognise that we have not done enough over these last years to resolve the problems we inherited from the past. We have not freed ourselves from a primitive economic structure and humiliating dependence on raw materials. We have not refocused our industry on consumers’ real needs. The habit of living off export earnings is still holding back innovative development. Russian business still prefers to sell goods produced abroad, and our own goods’ competitiveness is disgracefully low.
In this same speech and in an article, “Go, Russia” , President Medvedev presented his vision of a future Russia:
The foundation of my vision for the future is the firm conviction that Russia can and must become a global power on a completely new basis. Our country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements. After all, the oil and gas production facilities that generate most of our budget revenue, the nuclear weapons that guarantee our security, and our industrial and utilities infrastructure – most of this was built by Soviet specialists. In other words, it was not we who built it. It is still keeping our country afloat today, but it is rapidly depreciating both morally and physically. The time has come for today’s generation of Russians to make their mark and take our country to a new, higher level of civilisation.
We have a duty to heed the lessons of recent events. So long as oil prices were growing many, almost all of us, to be honest, fell for the illusion that structural reforms could wait and that what was important now was to make maximum use of the high prices. The priority was on pushing ahead the old raw materials economy, while developing unique technology and innovative products was the subject of only random individual decisions.
But we can delay no longer. We must begin the modernisation and technological upgrading of our entire industrial sector. I see this as a question of our country’s survival in the modern world.
I hope the time is not far off when Russia’s prosperity will depend on our successes in developing a market for ideas, inventions and discoveries, and on the ability of our state and society to find and encourage talented individuals capable of critical thinking, and rear young people in a spirit of intellectual freedom and civic activeness. (“Presidential Address to the Federation Assembly of the Russian Federation”)
I recently identified five strategic vectors for the economic modernisation of our country. First, we will become a leading country measured by the efficiency of production, transportation and use of energy. We will develop new fuels for use on domestic and international markets. Secondly, we need to maintain and raise our nuclear technology to a qualitatively new level. Third, Russia’s experts will improve information technology and strongly influence the development of global public data networks, using supercomputers and other necessary equipment. Fourth, we will develop our own ground and space infrastructure for transferring all types of information; our satellites will thus be able to observe the whole world, help our citizens and people of all countries to communicate, travel, engage in research, agricultural and industrial production. Fifth, Russia will take a leading position in the production of certain types of medical equipment, sophisticated diagnostic tools, medicines for the treatment of viral, cardiovascular, and neurological diseases and cancer. (“Go, Russia”)
Although not mentioned in either “Go, Russia” or his speech to the Federation Council, one of the ways that President Medvedev may seek to bring Russia’s economy into the 21st century may be via the expansion of Russia’s nanoindustries. In an earlier speech opening the 2nd Moscow International Nanotechnology Forum, President Medvedev outlined his plans for making Russia one of the dominant players on the nanotechnology scene:
We . . . have our own immodest goal in this area: we want to become leaders here – and for that we have the intellectual potential and the organizational and financial resources.
President Medvedev’s plan to achieve Russian leadership in nanotechnology consists of :
1) Attracting Russian émigré scienticists and technicians back to Russia
2) Organizing “a system of state orders for long-term procurement of innovative products”
3) Encouraging “ large, medium-sized and small businesses . . . to invest their money in nanotechnology”
4) “ Change tax and customs regimes”. “ We also need to create a green corridor for the export of hi-tech products as well as special conditions concerning customs clearance procedures . . . .”
5) “In addition, we have to modify a number of special laws, including those I mentioned in tax law, corporate law, and other laws concerning intellectual property protection. Finally, we need to adjust the system of technical regulation and create an up to date system of national standards, because the one we currently have is problematic.”
6) Improving technical training programs to provide a pool of trained professionals.
President Medvedev has proposed an ambitious plan, one which, if successful, could establish Russia as a major force in international nanoindustry and nanotechnology. But two obstacles could derail this plan before it could achieve any results.
As noted in his speech at the 2nd Nanotechnology International Forum, if the world economy recovers and the export of raw materials revives, the Russian economy might become dependent on the commodities markets again and not make the necessary changes to avoid the effects of future market collapses.
The second obstacle could be one that President Medvedev could not openly name in any speech: Vladimir Putin. As even casual observers of Russian politcs know, the real power in the Russian government does not lie in the Office of the Federation President, but in the office of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At this point in time, no one is sure if Prime Minister Putin intends to seek re-election as Prime Minister or seek the office of President again when elections roll around. If he does run for President and wins, then President Medvedev’s plans for the Russian nanoindustry will likely be forgotten.
In the more immediate future, it may be worthwhile to keep an eye on Russian Nanotechnologies (RUSNANO), the state owned corporation established during Putin’s Presidency and headed by Anatoly Chubais. According to a recent Agence France Press report, President Medvedev has given orders for it, along with other state own companies, to be partially privatized in 2010.