Expert answers present questions about Russia

Interview conducted by Jaime Ortega.

 Метцгер портрет

Ekaterina Mishina is a Russian lawyer who graduated from the Moscow State University Law School. Prof. Mishina holds a doctorate in law. She worked for the Constitutional Court of Russia, then headed the Legal Department of Russian cable company Mostelecom. From 2002-2005, she took part in the Law-Making and Club of Regional Journalism projects of the Open Russia Foundation, and from 2007-2010 she worked on two big-scale projects for the INDEM (Information Science for Democracy) Foundation. In the capacity of either general manager or legal expert, she participated in several projects for the World Bank, Ford Foundation, European Union, and USAID. She was a visiting scholar at New York University from 1990-1991, had internships in the U.S. Congress and Washington, D.C., office of Gardner, Curton & Douglas in 1993, and took part in the U.S. Department of State’s U.S.-Russia Experts Forum in 2006. Since 2005 she has worked as an assistant professor for the National Research University, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where she teaches comparative constitutional law.



1) Recently Russia just signed a $400 Billion deal with China that will strengthen unilateral (bilateral?) cooperation between the new giants. Will the agreement benefit China more, or Russia in the long run?

I believe, this deal carries a huge symbolic meaning for Russia. There are reasons to believe that it was more important politically than economically. There were serious concerns about possible outcomes of this “contract of the century”. Boris Nemtzov, a former Russian deputy Prime –Minister (1998) and Fuel and Energy Minister (1997) and subsequently an opposition leader — who was killed in February of 2015 in front of the Kremlin — referred to this deal as to the “fraud of the century”. In November of 2014 Nemtzov wrote in his Facebook that Russia’s potential profit from this deal is doubtful: there will be no fiscal revenues from this transaction, the initial construction cost estimates of $55 billion could double or even triple. Natural gas reserves in the region are hard to access, the climate is severe, and production costs are expected to be high. At the same time, the contractual gas price for China is much lower than those for Europe or Ukraine. Given the above, this “contract of the century” looks much more attractive for China than for Russia.

– The deal came close to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and also the current crisis experienced in Ukraine. EU and the US gave Russia, financial sanctions which put a restrain in the friendship, and also in the Russian economy. Will the energy accord with China, help Russia become less dependent with the Euro? And will it be more profitable in the long run with China, than with the downgraded EU economy that is experiencing recession?

One of the weaknesses in the Russia’s economy is that its exports are not diversified: about 80% of Russia’s exports are mineral products (oil, gas, coal) and metals. This puts Russia at the whim of commodity price fluctuations no matter who the trading partner is. The China deal is more of the same: Russia takes out a loan, builds a pipeline, pumps oil to China and uses the proceeds to repay the loan. In 30 years’ time, Russia will be left with a useless asset: a pipeline in the middle of nowhere leading to an empty oil field. I do not see how this makes sense economically.

2) How many countries will form the new Euro-Asian Union, and will it be a successful achievement to create a unified currency with these countries?

Eurasian Union and Euro-Asian Economic Union are two different concepts. The Treaty on Euro -Asian Economic Union came into effect on January 01 of 2015. This Union initially included Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are also the founders of the Customs Union. Armenia joined the EAEU on January 02, and Kyrgyzstan became a member of the Union in the end of May of 2015. The question of introducing of the unified supranational currency is still being debated. In April of 2015 the deputy Minister of national Economy of Kazakhstan commented that his country doesn’t support the idea of the unified currency for the EAEU member countries. Before that in March of 2015 President Putin instructed the Central bank of Russia and the Russian Government to make an economic assessment of benefits from the EAEU currency union.

There are also talks about the possibility of setting up a Eurasian Union, i.e. a confederation of a number of post-Soviet states. This project involves a higher level of integration and a unified political, economic, military, humanitarian and cultural space.

3) A lot of criticism is pointed to Vladimir Putin, who some experts claim is trying to re-establish the Russian empire by swallowing ex-Soviet nations. Is this really true, or is this more of western propaganda to downgrade Putin’s role as a president?

Putin is definitely on the “Back to the USSR” track. There are telltale signs of re-establishing of certain typically Soviet attitudes including hostility to the West and xenophobia, aggressive TV propaganda, extended definition of the high treason, the gay propaganda law, restraints of the freedom of assembly etc. The issue of re-establishing of the new version of the Soviet Union has been debated for a number of years. This idea is popular in today’s Russia, but other former Soviet states display different levels of enthusiasm and support at this point. The Baltic States, Georgia, Ukraine and some other former Soviet republics don’t favor the idea of the new USSR. Some Central Asian states and possibly Belarus will more likely consider the option of a confederation.

4) Is Putin losing popularity in Russia, considering the Russian economy has been hit harshly in 2015?

This conflict between the declining economy and aggressive propaganda is usually called “the battle between the refrigerator and the TV set”. Russians are trying to figure out what is more important for them now, and some seem to be ready to sacrifice recent gains in living standards for the sake of the great and mighty Russia. Putin is really popular, but I don’t believe in the notorious 86% , who support him. Even in late 2000s, when I took an active part in sociological studies conducted by the INDEM foundation (one of the oldest and most reputable think-tanks), our respondents repeatedly pointed out that they don’t believe that the surveys are anonymous. This attitude is getting stronger now, plus some respondents are afraid to provide honest answers. On the other hand, Putin’s propaganda is actively exploiting the concept of the great Soviet past, when the USSR was one of the world empires. At that time, the Soviet citizens were repeatedly instructed by the Soviet media and the Communist party officials that shortages of foods and goods were not important compared to the military power of the Soviet Union and its international prestige. Interests of the State always prevailed under the Soviet rule, and now this attitude is back. Propaganda of this sort works on people who failed to adjust to the post-Soviet life and the market economy. These people are overwhelmed with nostalgia for the powerful Soviet Union and former social guarantees of a paternalistic state, and Putin is saying exactly what they want to hear.

– The ghost of the Russian apartment bombings in Buynaksk and Volgodonsk has resurfaced the media the past year or so. Many Russian people now view Putin responsible for the incident with coordination from the FSB  as opposed to the state investigation, claiming he wanted to invade ‘Chechnya’ to gain more popularity and win the elections. What are your thoughts on this?

Before Ramzan Kadyrov proclaimed himself the devoted ally and supporter of President Putin, the Russian law enforcement officials were trying to spot “The Chechen traces” in every terrorist act. But Putin never sent federal troops to the Chechen republic. I do not think he was seriously considering this option. Russia already had a bad experience there in 1990s. As for the bombings, it’s impossible to judge on the level of Putin’s involvement in the absence of sufficient information.

5) Russia has a bipolar capitalist system. What new reforms will help the gap between the Lower middle class to help secure a more stable Russia?

First, it is necessary to increase security of domestic savings and safety of foreign investments. In order to secure a more stable Russia, certain Russian legislative norms regulating the issues of property rights and economic activity shall be changed. One important task will be changing certain provisions of the Russian Criminal Code, which establish criminal liability for “illegal” entrepreneurial activity. In order to set up a new business one has to obtain dozens of permits and no-objections from various administrative agencies. People can spend months getting all necessary documents, and those that were obtained first may already expire at the time when the last one is eventually received. This highly bureaucratic and corrupt system is not business-friendly, and at some point, many businesspersons face a challenging choice. They must either pay bribes in order to speed up the process or to operate in the absence of one or more required documents, which can be easily construed as illegal entrepreneurial activity and result in criminal prosecution. In their current wording, the applicable laws provide weak protection of individuals or their property in practice. On the contrary, such norms constitute a serious threat to individual rights and freedoms: their formulations are vague and ambiguous, so there is a serious risk of arbitrary interpretation and selective application of justice. The existing informal practices of interaction of businesses and governmental agencies also in dire need of change, and changing social norms is much harder and longer than altering the institutional design.

6) Iran and Russia are providing Assad’s regime with weapons, training and logistics, who is fighting against ISIL, and also Jahbat Al-Nusra as the FSA has finally dissolved its militia. Recently ISIL captured Ramadi, and controls now 50% of Syria. If Assad fails to reconquer Syria, and ISIL wins. Is there a strong possibility we might see Russian and Iranian troops fighting back against ISIL to regain territory in Syria?

Selling weapons and providing training is one thing, but sending troops is a completely different action, which requires approval of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian federal legislature. Under the Russian Constitution (Art. 102 (d)) deciding on the possibility of using the Armed Forces of the Russia outside the territory of the country lies with the Federation Council. For the time –being, I don’t see any signs that Russia is getting ready for some sort of military involvement in Syria. The Moscow principles (the guidelines that were approved in the course of the Moscow negotiations in January of 2015) suggest peaceful resolution of the conflict. I will be surprised if Russia sends the troops to Syria now.

7) Ecept Erdogan has supported ISIL, and Al-Qaeda and perhaps Pakistan is also involved. What is the relationship between Russia. Turkey and Pakistan? Is their relationship one of trust?

I don’t see any signs of hostility or lack of trust in Russian-Turkish or Russian –Pakistani relations.

– They are rumors that Russia with India is helping the Baluchistan Freedom Army. Is this true to stir turmoil against Pakistan?

Being a lawyer, I cannot comment on rumors. I have no evidence that Russia is supporting the BFA.

8) Was the relationship between the US and Russia better when George W. Bush was the president, or with Barack Obama?

The US-Russian relations were better in 2000s as opposed to 2010s, but it is not about George W.Bush or Barack Obama. Today’s Russia differs tremendously from Russia of 2000, it really looks like a different country. After the turn of the millennium, Russia still kept the attitudes of the times of Boris Yeltsyn, the first President of Russia. Yeltsyn was very open to foreigners, state-sponsored xenophobia was almost non-existent, so nothing reminded about the pre-Gorbachev’s Iron Curtain. Big changes started in mid-2012, when the first disturbing signs of preparation for the Cold War II came up to the agenda. In July of 2012, amendments to the RF legislation on NGOs introduced the concept of a foreign agent, i.e. an NGO, which gets financial support from foreign sources and is engaged in political activity. In April of 2014, The Constitutional Court of Russia ruled that these amendments were constitutional. Legal reasoning of this ruling offers a detailed justification for a notion of a foreign agent (a term that carries a negative connotation for most Russians). Introducing of the concept of a foreign agent was followed by considerable extension of definition of the high treason in November of 2012. The vague and ambiguous new wording creates unlimited possibilities for arbitrary interpretation and selective application of law: a criminal case for high treason can be initiated against any RF citizen who communicates almost any sort of information or undertakes almost any action. The most recent development is the notorious law on “undesirable organizations”, which came into effect in the end of May of 2015. Under the new law, “activity of any foreign or international NGO, which constitutes threat for fundamentals of the constitutional system of Russia, national defense capability of safety of the state, can be recognized as undesirable on the territory of Russia”. Such decisions shall be made by the RF Prosecutor General or his deputies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

9) Norway joined NATO anti Missile Defense Program. Ambassador Mikhail Vanin, threaten that Russia could launch a nuclear missile to Norway for reaching an agreement with NATO. How serious is this problem?

It’s not serious at all. Mikhail Vanin doesn’t have diplomatic background. He graduated from my alma mater, the Law School of the Moscow State University, and we did not study diplomacy there. In my book, it was an unprofessional statement, but it should not be read as conveying any real danger.

10) What new future Russian leaders could replace Vladimir Putin next?  Where do you see Russia globally in the next decade or so?

Predicting the future is not exactly my area. I certainly hope that next Russian President will be an open-minded person who appreciates such internationally recognized values as rule of law, separation of powers and supremacy of human rights and freedoms. I hope it will be someone not infected with the nostalgia for the Soviet Union. It’s a tragedy that Boris Nemtzov was killed. He would make a perfect president.



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