Professor of Political Science Daniel Treisman first traveled to Russia in 1988, just before the beginning of sweeping change in Eastern Europe and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. Treisman has written "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev" (Free Press, 2011), a book that covers much of the period he has spent watching the country. He drew from memoirs, personal interviews, and other sources to look at Russia as a typical — though strategically important — country facing everyday 21st century social, political and economic challenges.
The "return" that you describe in your book is Russia's return to the world two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yet Soviet Russia had a vigorous foreign policy. Before 1991, wasn't the country engaged with the world?
Right. Soviet Russia was not isolated in the sense that its leaders were not participating in international politics. It was the population that was isolated -- locked behind barbed wire, unable to communicate with the outside. So, Russians as a whole have now been able to reengage with the world, especially the richer Russians.
What does this return look like?
In 2009, Russians made 22 million trips to countries beyond the former Soviet Union, up from practically no trips in the late '80s. They've become plugged into Internet networks, they have more than one mobile phone per person.
Russian entrepreneurs are buying companies around the globe, and Russia's leaders are feeling their way toward a role in the international system. What we see is a reengagement with the world at many different levels.
Foreign policy has also changed, obviously. The way that Russia has been involved in the world in the last 20 years has been more as a participant in the international game than as a spoiler – a power that seeks to fundamentally reconfigure the international scene and undermine the objectives of other players.
Are the Russian people freer than they were before?
We saw a really dramatic breakthrough to greater freedom and democracy in the early '90s, followed by a gradual reversion. So I would say it's something like two steps forward, one step back. Still, if we simply compare the last 20 years to other periods in Russian history, Russians have been freer than at any time going back at least to the 16thcentury — at least to before Ivan the Terrible.
Recently, Putin has gradually reduced freedoms and various kinds of civil rights. The media have become less free, and national television is both censored and self-censored and very supportive of the Kremlin. But I think the fundamental reason why Putin remains popular is that the economy in Russia has done extremely well. Incomes have risen at nine percent a year in real terms on average since 2000.
So are Russians able to choose their leaders?
Elections are far from completely free and fair; there's been major manipulation. But in each case this has been more a matter of over-insurance than changing the outcome.
There may come a point when the majority will no longer approve of those in power, and then we'll see whether the Kremlin leadership will be able to impose candidates on the Russian public. I'm really not sure that they'll manage.
At present, Putin’s approval rating is still around 68 percent—Medvedev’s is 63 percent. But both have been slipping for the past two years. Clearly they should be concerned about the trend.
Even as the economy has improved, Russia still has terrible mortality rates. You write that this is blamed mainly on vodka?
Alcoholism is, if not the primary cause, one of the major causes of the big increase in mortality in Russia since the early 1990s. My view is that increased alcohol abuse was caused in part by the end of Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign, and especially the fall in prices, which was quite dramatic. So serious alcoholics found themselves able to buy a very large amount of vodka — enough to literally drink themselves to death.
Many countries have gone through a similar type of problem during industrialization. Over time, people tend to substitute less lethal kinds of alcohol like beer and wine for vodka; recently we've seen a big increase in beer consumption in Russia. To some extent, this is a hopeful sign.
Over the last two decades, Russia fought wars to hold onto Chechnya. Are the underlying issues still present, and should we expect still more conflict?
The North Caucasus in general is becoming more unstable and very worryingly so. Twenty years of war and neglect and mismanagement of federal forces have created a situation in which there is a very serious problem of a terrorist insurgency, loosely organized if organized at all, but which is no longer seeking independence for Chechnya, but – if it's seeking anything – wants to establish an Islamic dominion across the North Caucasus. There doesn't seem to be very much that Moscow, even under the most enlightened leadership, could do. It's likely to remain this terrible problem which will continue to produce terrorist attacks, both in the North Caucuses and in Moscow and Central Russia.
Recently it was announced that Prime Minister Putin will run for president in next March’s election and that, if he wins, he will appoint Medvedev as prime minister. Assuming it happens, what difference do you think this switch in jobs will make?
Putin’s planned return to the Kremlin is a disappointment for those in Russia and the West who saw Medvedev as slightly more liberal. But I don’t think the two leaders’ game of musical chairs will, in itself, change much. The reality is that for the past three and a half years, since Medvedev’s election, Putin has been making all the key decisions, usually in consultation with Medvedev. That is likely to continue. Those who imagine that a second Medvedev term would have resulted in dramatic breakthroughs to more open politics have the challenge of explaining why his first term did not.