There is a Russian proverb, “Не пеняй на зеркало, коли рожа крива,” which loosely translates as, “Don’t blame the mirror for your ugly face.”
Ironically, Russia’s ruling elite are not blaming themselves for the shortcomings of the so-called, Putin-Medvedev tandem. Two recent developments in particular have prompted this dilemma within the elite class. First, in mid-March, President Medvedev’s Chief of Staff, Sergei Ivanov, voiced his mistrust in various country rankings prepared by international organizations, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which placed Russia at 143rd along with Belarus, Nigeria and Azerbaijan among 183 countries. He spoke of the need to create Russia’s own corruption ranking.
Then came the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings “Top 100 Universities by Reputation” ranking for 2012, where not a single Russian university made it to the top 100. Two days after Mr. Ivanov’s statement, Russia’s Education Minister, Andrei Fursenko, promptly announced in response that Russia will create its own “international and universally recognized” university reputation ranking system, which would rival the Times’ rankings. Fursenko was in fact reiterating an almost forgotten statement made by Vladimir Putin in February 2011 regarding the “need to be very cautious about standings, and work out a self-made objective method of evaluating the quality of education.”
Authorities have made similar complaints in several resource-rich former Soviet republics, namely Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. On the democratization and human rights fronts, various international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House have for years opined on the subject of systemic impediments to the development of a well-functioning Russian society.
Nonetheless, it is not just the outside world that points out these flaws. The wave of protests that followed the parliamentary election last December is indicative of trouble for the Kremlin’s rule, which can’t be ignored. In the realm of science and education, Russian scientists at home and abroad have long warned of systemic risks. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to authorities that universities in Russia are lagging in world rankings, because the academic community that is supposed to educate future generations is fleeing Russia to countries that can offer a better quality of life and better career opportunities.
In an interview with the New York Times, Times’ editor, Phil Baty attributed the poor performance of Russian universities to the lack of investments as well as the low number of English-language academic publications in Russia compared to other countries, not to mention the ‘brain-drain’ happening in Russia. The brain-drain phenomenon is triggered by several factors. Scientists and researchers have a tendency to leave their home country mainly due to instability or stagnation caused by political and socio-economic problems, and when they do leave, higher education and scientific research suffers the biggest blow as they are deprived of the best minds the country has to offer.
Russia has experienced several waves of brain-drain, with the last one occurring in the early ‘90s, when a massive wave of scientists left Russia for the U.S., Israel and Europe primarily due to political and economic instability in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The roots of present day outflows seem to be systemic despite Russia’s relatively good economy in addition to oil revenues that have helped Russia cushion the shock of 2008 global economic crisis.
In the political arena, the Kremlin claims to have built a stable political order. But this order has come at the cost of transforming Russia into a society where political and economic competition and access to resources is restricted to members of the dominant coalition and their client networks. It is precisely this manipulation of the economic system by the political elites and the rent-seeking schemes (graft) that have been skillfully put in place in all sectors, including in education and research, that stifles all aspects of life in Russia.
Similar trends are seen in other resource-rich countries of the former USSR, such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which have followed the Kremlin’s policies and have suffered from popular discontent with the existing political and economic regimes based on state capitalism. The seeming political stability in these countries is based on a system of patronage networks run by various high-ranking government officials, which perpetuates the corruption and bureaucratic red tape of the Soviet era in virtually all areas from healthcare and the issuance of building permits to education institutions, making it extremely difficult to become an honest public servant, run a legitimate business, or even pursue a successful scientific career without first joining the ruling party, praising the “savior of the nation” or exercising self-censorship.
Those in the patronage networks carve out advantages for themselves, at the expense of the rest of society, science and education. Talks are in the works by Russian authorities of pouring billions into science and education in an effort to stem the brain drain. One such effort was an ambitious science and technology project in Skolkovo, dubbed Russia’s Silicon Valley, in order to attract scientists at home and from abroad, and possibly reverse the brain drain.
But in an embarrassing development, two notable Russian physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who both live and work in the U.K. and who won a Nobel Prize in late 2010, turned down an invitation by the head of the international cooperation department of the Skolkovo Fund to join the project and work in Skolkovo. Geim denounced the Skolkovo project as “surrealism,” stating “You must have all gone mad over there, if you think that for a sack of gold you can invite anyone.”
Both physicists attributed their refusal to return to the ingrained corruption and bureaucracy, as well as the lack of resources that would pose a serious barrier to any successful research work in Russia. The spillover effects of the patronage system for an ordinary non-sycophantic scientist are the lack of academic and research independence, limited freedoms, limited career prospects, poor education and health services for their children, as well as a low overall quality of life.
In an opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center in 2011, these factors were cited among the main reasons why the young and well-educated opt to leave Russia. The results of this survey revealed that 22 percent of Russia’s adult population would prefer to leave the country for good, a threefold increase from 2007, when only 7 percent of the population wanted to leave despite the rise in living standards during this period.
This by far was the largest increase in the number of frustrated citizens in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, when only 18 percent of the population said they wanted to leave the country in 1991. Similarly, over 50 percent of entrepreneurs expressed their desire to leave Russia. But most importantly, those considering this option are not the poor and uneducated. The disgruntled citizens are the educated middle class, which includes entrepreneurs and students.
Critics believe that real change in Russia and other resource-rich states of the FSU can only occur if the ruling elites ease their grip on the economy and open up political and economic space to genuine competition, build and strengthen an independent judiciary and other state institutions while at the same time combating corruption and bureaucracy. And until then, when the authorities aren’t pleased with the way they are seen from abroad or at home, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror.