By Flavio Previtali, Marylia Hushcha and Gina Butros
On February 4-5, 2019 the International Institute for Peace (IIP) co-organized together with the International Centre for Advanced and Comparative EU-Russia Research Vienna (ICEUR), Raiffeisen Bank International and the city of Vienna, the “Vienna process conference 2019”. This was a moment to celebrate the ten years activity of ICEUR and to work on ideas on how to strengthen the EU-Russia political and economic dialogue. The speakers highlighted the necessity of a frank dialogue about goals and principles on which a restored relationship should be established. The second day of the conference featured three panel discussions on economy and finance, civil society and the role of investigative media.
Economics & Finance: Business as usual?
During the first panel, a particular focus was directed to the current Russian economic situation which was extensively analyzed in terms of GDP, finance and energetic policy. The discussion started by commenting on the new data, which were published by Russia´s official statistics agency, about GDP growth in the Russian Federation. According to the data published on February 4th, the Russian economy grew in 2018 reaching a +2,3% per year, the fastest since 2012. The data were much better than expected, overcoming the government expectations of +1,7% growth. This is something surprising especially in light of economic sanctions, the decline in oil prices since the fall of 2014 and data released by other international rating agencies. Commenting on this, some panelists expressed positive optimism, however the majority of them remained skeptical on the data released by Rosstat. They argued that these data was not trustworthy because the system used by the agency to calculate GDP growth has changed too many times in the last two years to provide a reliable comparison. Moreover, the agency encountered certain troubles in December 2018 when Russian economists and the Minister of finance declared that the agency´s data were unreliable in sectors such as people's income and inflation and Alexander Surinov, head of Rosstat, was asked to resign and was replaced.
When looking at the financial situation, the discussion highlighted some clear changes that happened since President Putin was re-elected in 2018. The new financial policy is extremely conservative and seems to be built in preparation for defence. The Russian central bank has shifted its major investments into gold and accumulation of financial resources. Furthermore, a new element of the Russian financial policy is to decrease the use of dollar in favor of investments in different currencies such as the Chinese and Japanese. According to Oleg Vyugin, this could damage the Russian economy, resulting in increased transaction costs. In this sense, the Central bank is moving towards safety and liquidity as a result of a political decision, to create a system which protects the economy in case of future shocks. According to Vladislav Inozemtsev, this will be useful to maintain the stability of the political regime for the next years. Examining the balance between private and public investments, the panelists pointed out that there is a trend in implementing a stronger state intervention in economy to offset the decrease of foreign investments and as an attempt to modernize the economy. The panelists also suggested that this could lead in the future to a clash between private and public interests and that modernization without integration in the global economy would mean complete isolation.
The last topic covered in the economic panel concerned energy. Russia, in fact, is among the largest suppliers of gas, oil, coal and uranium to Europe and this makes the energy factor crucial for the EU-Russia relationship. A topical place was reserved to the „Nordstream 2“, the realization of a second gas pipeline in the Baltic sea to connect directly Russia to Germany. The panelists pointed out that the discussion in the media and public talks has been highly politicized. The project has been represented as a strategic move of Moscow to punish and marginalize Ukraine and to divide the European side. The U.S., the European Commission and some European states have, in fact, heavily opposed the project. But the experts highlighted that there is more to add to the discussion. The project will have enormous costs for Gazprom, which in addition to the pipeline had to build new infrastructures from the Yamal peninsula for more than 44 billion Euro. Massive investments in new infrastructure, instead of renovating and increase efficiency of the existing one, have a negative impact on the Russian economy. In addition to this, It is important to consider that states, such as Bulgaria or Finland, are trying to diversify their energy supplies to overcome the total dependence on Russia.
Civil Society and Civil Institutions: Russian and European Experience
Whenever we talk about civil society in Russia we have to talk about the state too. The country and the political system in Russia are too different things and it is a big mistake to confuse them. Civil society is often seen as a driver of change. To understand in what environment it operates one can look at a recent report produced jointly by Levada Center and Carnegie Moscow. It shows that majority of Russians want comprehensive changes in the country. And the demand for decisive changes has been growing, especially after the presidential elections of 2018. Before the elections, the nation was unified around the ideas of greatness and negativistic narratives about the rest of the world (‘we are under attack’, ‘we are not like them, we are spiritual’). After the elections however, it was not enough for the public any longer and the approval of the president has steadily decreased.
When one speaks about civil society in Russia, it is difficult to paint a unifying picture. First, one should distinguish between truly independent non-governmental organizations and those organizations that are affiliated with the state and to a large degree promote the Kremlin’s political agenda. Secondly, even those truly independent NGOs are faced with different realities in Russia depending on the area of their engagement. Thus, some of them, such as Vera Hospice Charity Foundation, do not face any restrictions on their activities and can freely operate in the country doing a very important job of promoting palliative care. On the other hand, those civil society actors who in some way challenge the state are faced with numerous limitations and very often cannot be registered in Russia. Those organizations include mainly human rights groups and environmental groups. Thus, for example the initiative Russia Behind Bars that aims to protect human rights in prisons faces numerous challenges when trying to implement its activities. There are also a number of legislative acts, such as the law on ‘foreign agents’ and the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ that prevent many civic initiatives from functioning. Therefore, there is also a new type of civil society emerging in Russia. It is of highly informal nature and very often it is non-state oriented. Besides the restrictions imposed by the state, there are also other problems that progressive civil society needs to tackle, such as the existence of conservative NGOs, and a society in apathy that demands change but is not ready to stand up for it. State responses to the real civil society by trying to nationalize and colonize private activity, very often mirroring activities of non-governmental organizations.
New Challenges for Investigative Media
In his introduction to this panel on new challenges for investigative media, Hans-Georg Heinrich, Vice-President ICEUR, spoke about the core conflict of investigative media which is the duty of the journalists to share with the public information that it had been denied access to and on the other side the respect to the right of privacy or national security. Nowadays, there is the phenomenon of ‘leaks’, which certainly does solve this core conflict in one distinct direction. He also addressed the issue of journalists in exile, which in this specific case can rather be called ‘investigative media in exile’.
Investigative media and civil society strongly depend on each other. Investigative media depends on a civil society that is strong, aware of common values, such as human rights, and is capable to voice an opinion and to respect itself. If there is no such civil society investigative media cannot respond to it, cannot reflect on it. Russian civil society however, is still in the process of transitioning from authoritarian rule to democratic rule and from empire to nation state: there are no common values yet in civil society to be reflected on by investigative media. The duty of independent media can therefore only be to endure the current situation until one day society will be ready. This current situation means no faith in the media and investigative media alone cannot overcome this state of society and move it up and mobilize it but it can stand up to the cynicism of people - every day again. This concludes that civil society itself must educate itself before things can change and that it has to find a direction to head to after such an event of ‘waking up’, which the media cannot provide for. WIth this in mind, Putin’s presidency must be understood as a symptom only, but not as a root cause.
Concerning media channels, two very different situations occur under very different circumstances: the internet may be easy to access, however not for all Russians, and one might be free to publicly engage in debate, but the question remains if one is actually heard. To publish a story about an existing problem or suspicious dealings of a public figure is not enough, it does not cause a strong public reaction. Investigative journalists must be provocative to be heard by the people. This is due to the fact that Russian society mainly relies on the news coverage by pro government media. Concerning print news, rates of investigative media readers are extremely low: whereas the pro-governmental media have money and good market position, investigative media do not. Another problem is that they have to compete with a conglomerate of wealthier and more powerful media. To find readers is very difficult in the investigative media sector: either there is no interest or there is no money to buy – or both. The first doesn’t come as surprise given the fact that people generally don’t trust the investigative media.
Investigative media in Russia however are active and contribute to revealing events of political relevance. ‘The Insider’ is Russia’s biggest investigative media journal; while it is relying on foreign sponsors and is registered in Riga, it is still dependant on the Russian state authorities to grant them permission to publish. The field of investigative media is tough, journalists live in a competitive work environment. A ‘Union of Journalists’ would change the field of investigative media for the better, considering the fact that not only journalists are endangered because of their work but also their knowledge once they are considered a threat.
The fact that most investigative Russian journalists live outside Russia is indeed problematic. Their critical sense forced them to leave Russia. This contributes to a society being separated not only in geographical distances but it continues the growth of cleavages between pro-government and government-critical civil society. As investigative journalist to work from the exile is not only more secure but also feasible in times of the digital age. However, without someone present in Russia, it is still impossible to work.
Please find below the video of the panel discussion on: “Civil society and civil institutions: Russian and European Experience”.