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Political Philosophy

Sustainable Development: New Political Philosophy for Russia?

Artour L. Demtchouk
Moscow State University

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ABSTRACT: Both domestic and foreign policies of each state presuppose a certain ideology as a foundation. In a broad sense, an ideology may be regarded as a certain 'system of coordinates,' an interpretational model of the world (Weltanschauung) including both empirico-theoretical (realizing a nation's place in regional and global contexts, with a clear understanding of national interests, goals and resources) and metatheoretical (comprehending a nation in the context of human history and culture) levels. Some of the main issues on the agenda in Russia are the clear understanding and definition of national goals and interests, the formulation of a strategy of development in economic, social, political, etc., arenas, and the establishment of both domestic and foreign policy. I suggest that Russia currently does not have an ideology or a system of values able to unite the society. In short, I argue that Russia needs a new strategy of development, a new national idea which can replace (or fill the vacuum left by the collapse of) the old communist ideology.

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Both domestic and foreign policies of each state presuppose a certain ideology (philosophy) as a foundation to be based on. In a broad sense an ideology may be regarded as a certain "system of coordinates", an interpretational model of the world ("Weltanschauung"), combining both empirico-theoretical level (the realization of the country's place in regional and global context, the clear understanding of national interests, goals and resources) and metatheoretical (an existential comprehension of the country in the context of human history and culture).

One of the main issues on the agenda in Russia is the clear understanding and definition of national goals and interests, formulation of the strategy of development (economic, social, political, etc.) and setting on this basis the main goals in both domestic and foreign policy.

I would take a risk to assert that at present time Russia does not have an ideology or a system of values able to unite the society. To say in short, I strongly argue that Russia needs a new strategy of development, a new national idea which can replace (or, in fact fill the vacuum remained after the collapse of) the old communist ideology which had been guiding Russian politics for nearly 75 years. We can, of course, discuss about the very necessity and the usefulness of an ideology or a national idea as such and whether it is not a mistake to create any national idea, because this idea may become an idee-fixe, which may mean intolerance to the others.

As we look at Russian history and political culture we may see the strong tradition of charismatic type of leadership and that Russia for a long time had been guided by a certain idea or a concept ("Moscow is the Third Rome"; "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, National Character", communist "radiant future") which had a great influence on politics, political behavior and political symbolic.

Since Russia is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country with it's specific regional diversity and historical background, such an idea (or a strategy) on the one hand should not be merely a revert to one of the previous ideologies (either monarchist or communist) and on the other hand should not be an imitation or a transfer of any foreign model of development to Russia.

If someone starts talking seriously about possible restoration of monarchy, or about restoration of the communist Soviet Union he will be at least laughed at.

And in addition the most important requirement is that such an idea should not be at conflict with the existing basic values of Russian people, it is called to unite, to consolidate the nation, to prevent further disintegration of Russia. In other words such an idea should have been able to become a basis for national consensus-building (or we may call it a national reconciliation) and to encourage Russia to co-operate with global community.

Since communalist and collectivist values are still widely shared by many Russians some intellectuals (worried that the "epoch of the universal isolation" is coming) suggest to revive so called "Russian Idea" ("Russkaya Ideya"), or the idea of "sobornost'" (conciliarism), a specific humanist vision of Russian identity, the specificity of Russia. In this case how can such an identity be defined then? Whether it is supposed to be based on Orthodoxy and cultural tradition of Russian ethnos? To my opinion Russian national idea should stress not only the particularity of Russian nation but at the same time it should contain in itself an integrative potential.

But what principles and ideas can the new model of development be based on?

Our world is becoming more interdependent and at present not a single country can develop being isolated from world economy and politics, disregarding ideas and principles elaborated by philosophy and social science of the global community (and the "sustainable development" is one of them).

In Russian context it might be interesting to know how is sustainable development understood, how this idea affects Russian political philosophy, how are national actions understood to relate to international sustainable development objectives.

Being a product of the "western" schools of thought, science and politics of developed countries the concept of sustainable development could be regarded as a logical evolution of the paradigms of social development of the western civilization. This evolution could be described in the following way: secular state (where the man may act independently from the church) - state (rule) of law (liberal notion of human rights, division of powers, etc.) - welfare state (providing all citizens with social minimum of education, medical services, social insurance, public control and accountability of the power structures) - sustainable development (adding ecological economics, harmony with the environment).

The main point of development should be regarded as an actualization of inherent potentialities on the basis of inherent incentives and motive forces. The criterion for development could not be located outside, and may be for this reason many attempts of modernization in the "third world" countries which followed foreign patterns of reforms in invariable form faced a lot of problems and sometimes failed. A number of traditional societies opposed the process of modernization and of introduction of new technologies during industrialization because this process lead to the destruction of traditional style of life, to the decline of traditional ethics. On the contrary, the successful modernization took place in the countries which managed to preserve and use traditional ethos of labor and traditional ethics in their modernizational efforts.

Sustainability may be regarded as the preservation of the system's integrity, system's inherent resources of development.

The ideas of sustainable development prove to be in harmony with Russian traditions and mentality as well as with the mentality of many traditional societies, where ethical norms, cultural and religious values are based on the idea of the care of environment (rational land use, not hunting certain species, etc.) are shared by people. Such ideas do not contradict the basic values of the main modern ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, socialism) as well as of the main religions. This concept corresponds also with the commonly used understanding of justice and equity. It is not a coincidence that many political parties in Russia use the term "sustainable development" and even include it in their political programs. Communist Party of Russian Federation has officially adopted "sustainable development" as a goal, interpreting it as implementation of the socialist principles, increasing planning and enforcing the state intervention in economics and politics to provide just distribution of national wealth and social equality. Several experts of the Liberal-Democratic Party presented a draft of the Concept during its discussion in Russian State Duma.

The term "sustainable development" is relatively new for Russian public. After issuing of the Presidential Decree "On the Russian Federation National Strategy of Environmental Policy and Providing Sustainable Development" (1994) Russian Government started elaboration of the "Concept of Putting Russia on a Path Toward Sustainable Development" (adopted in April 1996).

The majority of contemporary Russian political parties and various political groups (Chernomyrdin at the head of the government and Zyuganov and Zhirinovski in opposition) share the notion of the main goals and of key priorities of sustainable development.

All of them realize the necessity of economic stabilization, dealing with economic crisis (and it's implications in social sphere) and strengthening economic growth to achieve the pre-crisis level of the output.

Another priority - the most rational and efficient (optimal) use of existing potential, mainly human resources, which is very high in Russia.

One more commonly accepted goal in our days became the providing of "social minimum" (as in welfare state) - social security, health care, education, employment, quality of life, etc. Such set of tasks and goals may seem to be very ambitious one, it's implementation requires great amount of resources.

Vast amount of strategic natural and human resources (we can also consider huge territory (even that at present Russia has the same borders as it had by the end of XVII century) and existing military potential as a strategic resource) form a strong potential for coming up with effective remedial efforts.

On of the main obstacles for effective implementation of sustainable development strategies in Russia is that the majority of Russian population do not have enough resources to affect decision making at the governmental level. They participate in politics as passive "subjects". People can also hardly accept the idea of reducing birth rate if we take into account the ongoing depopulation of central part of Russia. In this respect Russia is an exception among the most populated countries in the world (since the main idea of sustainable development on global level is the birth rate control and it's reduction).

The public opinion in contemporary Russia may be characterized by the predominance of the ideas of stability, of maintaining the existing order and way of life, by the phenomena we can call "everyday conservatism" with it's slogan "new changes make life worse". Many attempts to invent new technologies, provoke suspicious reaction of the regular people, who have no sufficient information and who are afraid of unknown things, regarding them as a potential threat for their health and for their usual way of life.

Another main difficulty for implementing sustainable development strategies in Russia is that Russians (as a whole) did not get used to participate in the decision making process, being active voters (more than 90%) in the first years of "perestroika" they are more and more passive now (less than 40%). In addition to the absence of the phenomena of "postmaterialism" this circumstance can explain the weakness of ecological movement in Russia ("green" parties are small groups of intellectuals in big cities) and very small electoral support of "green" candidates during the elections.

The analysis of different levels of Russian economy and social structure leads to the conclusion (not very optimistic) that in the uncertain political and economic situation, in the absence of strong organized interest groups, social and political forces the state is the only one powerful actor in contemporary Russian which has resources and might have political will to implement to strategy of sustainable development. And the Concept of Sustainable Development for Russia lays special emphasize on this role of the state as a guarantee of reforms. Of course it is open to question whether a state (and not the civil society, NGOs, etc.) should play the main role in the transition towards sustainable development.

According to the official Concept the transition towards sustainable development implies the accomplishment of a number of tasks. Among them:

  • stabilization of the ecological situation in the country;
  • ecologization of economics with the goal of sustainability at macro level;
  • dissemination of environmentally oriented methods of management;
  • restructuring of national economy and patterns of consumption of energy and other resources.

The main directions of national sustainable development strategy (according to the Conception) should be:

  • the creation of legal framework including improvement of environmental law;
  • the elaboration of the system of incentives for ecological economics;
  • monitoring of local and regional ecosystems;
  • the establishment of an effective system of ecological (environmental) education.

The transition towards sustainable development implies the strict ecological expertise (environmental impact assessment) of any project and the forecasting of changes in the environment.

One of the main problems which arises while working out sustainable development strategy and policy programs is the problem of the criteria for decision-making process and indicators of sustainability.

At the first stage of the transition towards sustainable development the framework for balanced functioning of the economy is to be created. Moreover, the decision-making process should take into account the consequences of the implementation of each decision, it should presuppose the assessment of costs, benefits and risks, having in mind the following criteria:

  • no economic activity is reasonable if its environmental damage exceeds its benefits;
  • no project can be started if its implementation may cause irreplaceable damage to the nature or the environmental consequences are not enough studied and forecasted;
  • the negative environmental impact must be minimized as much as possible under existing social and economic conditions.

The main criteria for sustainable development in Russia should be the quality of life, the indicators of which are: life expectancy, employment rate, healthy environment (safe drinking water, clean air, etc.), educational level, per capita income, exercise of human rights. These criteria are mainly based on facts, not merely on social constructs. They can be measured by scientific means, recorded and interpreted in more or less unambiguous way (with the possible exeption of human rights). The same criteria could be applied to regional and local plans and programs.

Such policies will require enormous financial resources for social projects. In that case there is one serious question: whether it could be possible to ask people to "wait a little bit more", to sacrifice their present welfare for the sake of the expected well being in indefinite future? In Russian context (people are familiar with the ideology of the "radiant future") it is the problem of the confidence in the leaders (government).

At present Russian President and Russian government are in an ambiguous position. On the one hand, striving for the integration into the global community Russian leaders often express their commitment to the principles of sustainable development, many decrees and environmental laws are being adopted, the state Strategy of Sustainable Development is being elaborated, but on the other hand - the need of holding power and of finding financial resources for the state budget makes them to take into account the particular interests of the most powerful interest groups both in Russia (mining and industrial lobby) and abroad (wishing to make Russia a cheap source of raw materials).

Russia is the country of big spaces, and therefore it is extremely important to take into consideration the regional dimension of the policies. This is so because regions of Russia are different not only in terms of natural resources and physical conditions (landscape, climate, etc.) but also in terms of the demographical and cultural variables.

At present time Russian government is working on more detailed National Strategy of Sustainable Development which will define concretely the tasks, instruments and stages of the transition.

As we can see the official Concept focuses it's attention on the issues of economic and environmental policy, but it seems to be extremely important to elaborate also philosophical, political, social, educational and cultural aspects of the national sustainable development strategies. These issues may be in the center of future studies, research and discussions both in academic community and at the administrative level, producing ideas for implementation policies.

Recently a number of publications on sustainable development in Russia increased. Not all scholars agree that this idea is fruitful and good for Russia. The main criticism could be summarized in following points:

  • "sustainable development" is either a controversial term in itself (for any development is sustainable by it's nature) or an utopian and ambitious concept which will be never (or at least in visible future) implemented (since only environmental protection commands widespread support and other components of this concept are disputable);
  • the idea of sustainable development is not applicable to Russia because it was formulated in the West and does not take into account the specific features of Russian society as well as of the other non-western types of civilization;
  • concept of sustainability requiring limitation of industrial growth, means conservation of the existing inequality on the global scale and of the existing gap between rich and poor countries, it means the solution of the problems of industrialized countries at the expense of less developed nations.

Of course it is true that because of the advantage of their position in global economy highly developed countries are not interested in changing their pattern of economic development. Neither are some developing countries which managed to integrate successfully in existing global economic order. And in such a situation it seems reasonable to think that the main condition for sustainable development of Russia is the prevention of Russia's integration into transnational model of industrial development merely as a source of raw materials.

In spite of various conceptual and ideological differences actually there is one thing common for all political parties and groups of contemporary Russia - this is the concern for such priorities of sustainable development as social programs, public health, support of educational system, halt of the recession, economic and financial stabilization, taking into account given natural and human resources.

The efficient use of sustainable development concept in the process of formulating long-term strategy of development for Russia could become the basis of practical policy making. For the present time it is very important to start with an idea which can be shared by social groups, professing diametrically opposed political values, and the concept of sustainable development could become the starting-point for future discussions.

The mentioned concept being the basis of domestic policy could help Russia to identify its new place in the world. Russia has always been at the junction, at the meeting point of the two worlds: agricultural and nomadic, Oriental and European, Christian and Islamic. It promoted the forming of the sense of being surrounded, the readiness to repulse invasion, which in foreign policy was expressed in so called concept of "concentric circles". In present days the remains of the "superpower" ideology as well as the idea of "one and indivisible" Russia still exist in social consciousness. This phenomena may explain public support to Russian nationalist ("patriotic") political forces and the striving for integration with Belorussia and with other former Soviet republics.

The "sustainable development" concept may contribute to mobilizing communities for practical actions, to social coalition-building and may become one of the basis of the national strategy of development. The entire logic of it's implementation will encourage Russia to play the role of a "bridge", linking the East and the West, will orient national foreign policy at co-operation and not at confrontation with the rest of the world.

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