Rarely has Russia's leadership been so widely reviled in the West, yet rarely has the West needed Russia's friendship more.
The most obvious reason the West needs Russia is the latter's abundance of natural resources, which Western governments have for decades assumed would always be at the disposal of their industries. Indeed, Europe has almost learned to take its dependence for granted, relying on its good fortune that, for the past three centuries, the Russian elite has identified itself wholeheartedly with European culture and values. The occasional voices that arose to call for a reorientation eastward to Siberia, or southward to Central Asia, have never been more than marginal political or cultural influences.
Until today, that is. Now that two-thirds of gross domestic product (GDP) in the world is generated in the Asia-Pacific arena, and European and US elites trumpet their increasing hostility toward Russia's economic and political resurgence, it becomes hard for even such an ardent Europhile as President Vladimir Putin to argue that his country's destiny perforce lies with Europe. Translated into simple geopolitical terms, if the West cannot convince Russia that it deserves a "special relationship", then over the next two decades China and India, rather than Europe, will become the primary beneficiaries of Russia's resource abundance, and the axis of global political and economic development will shift accordingly.
The consequences of such shift for the West are not hard to imagine. It would lead to the decline, first of Europe, and then inevitably of Europe's closest ally, the United States. Ultimately, Russia's decision (and it is clearly its to make) to align itself or not with the West will prove decisive in tipping the scales in favor of the long-term prospects of modern Western civilization.
Given these stakes, the United States and Europe should strive harder for Russia's friendship. More than a decade and a half after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it is high time to set aside hostilities and to confront the main obstacle to achieving true friendship - an inordinate and often irrational fear of Russia.
Fears have both objective and subjective sources, intertwined in such a way that it is often difficult to tell them apart. As a result, the subjective components of our fear linger well beyond their objective reality; think, for example, of how often as adults people still react viscerally to the things they feared as children.
So it is with Russia today. Compared with the USSR of 30 years ago, Russia's decimated army, which even with recent increases spends no more than 5% of the US military budget, is no military threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Moreover, Russia's overarching economic and political ambition since 1991 has not been global conquest, but integration into the global market economy (incidentally, making Moscow the world's fifth-largest stock market). And yet despite having undergone changes that would have been inconceivable a generation ago, many Western pundits seem to fear Russia even more than they feared the USSR, and routinely compare Putin to Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, even Adolf Hitler!
Such an intense level of fear must be linked to self-image - to a cultural identity so deeply ingrained that many in the West simply cannot imagine parting with it. That cultural identity, based on separating Russia from the West, served the West quite well during the Cold War by bolstering its psychological defenses against an implacable ideological foe. Now, however, it is hampering our ability to see the profound changes that have occurred in Russian society, and we must let it go.
Among the many factors that shape perception of the world around us, the mass media play a singularly important role. Sociologists tell us that we see people as "informed" when their opinions match the categories established by the media. When one challenges these categories, therefore, one literally runs the risk of being seen as taking positions that are "against all common sense".
In reporting about Russia, we see all too often that as reality diverges from our preconceptions, media reports serve to reinforce our stereotypes. The sad truth is that the more negative a story is about Russia, the more we know it to be true - a toxic axiom that has resulted in a surreal picture of contemporary Russia. Here are just a few of the choicest examples.
Western reporting about Chechnya has focused on the devastation of war and terrorism. This remains the primary focus today, even though more than 7,500 rebels have laid down their arms, terrorist attacks have fallen to almost nil, Russian military casualties went from 1,400 in 2000 to 28 in 2005 and, last August, Russia disbanded the operational headquarters of its military counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus and transferred security functions to the local Chechen militia.
Since welcoming back most of what were once nearly a million refugees, more than 30,000 new businesses have sprung up. Today there are regions of Grozny where real-estate prices are higher than in Moscow. New political and financial institutions are functioning routinely throughout the republic.
This is not to suggest that all is now fine in the North Caucasus - unemployment is still widespread; many kidnappings remain unresolved. Still, it is clearly a distortion to pretend that there has not been dramatic progress in this region in the past five years. Russia has won its war against the Chechen rebels and it is safe to say that most people in the West don't even know it.
The legal system
Reporting about the Russian legal system is full of tales of corruption, murder and political pressure, and while these do exist, they have become the exception rather than the norm under Putin.
Reading the Western press one would never know that since Putin became president, citizens' use of courts to redress grievances has risen sevenfold, and that 71% of plaintiffs win their cases against the government.
Largely unbeknownst to us in the West, dramatic changes are transforming the Russian legal landscape. In 2006 alone, laws were passed that virtually eliminate closed judicial proceedings, expand the rights of defendants to call witnesses on their behalf, specify that government officials must respond to a citizen's requests within 30 days, create a nationwide juvenile court system, and add significant new privacy protections for individuals.
Over the next five years, nearly US$2 billion will be injected into the judicial system to enhance its openness and public accessibility. The Russian Association of Lawyers has received government funding to establish a nationwide network of support centers where citizens can turn for free legal advice.
Admittedly, these changes do not guarantee that justice will always triumph in Russian courts, but they are a clear sign that things are moving in the right direction, which is not the impression one gets from the Western media.
Discussions of the Russian media typically imply that state control is total, when in fact there are more private media in Russia today than at any time in its history.
In 1997 there were just over 21,000 registered periodicals, virtually no electronic media, and just under 100 television companies. More than half of all media were owned by the state. A decade later, there are more than 58,000 periodicals, 14,000 electronic media, and 5,500 broadcasting companies. The state's share in the newspaper and journal market in 2006 was estimated to be less than 10%, while its share in electronic media, which today reach 25 million people, is even smaller. Today it is not the Russian state but foreign companies that own shares in more than half of all Russian broadcasting companies.
Critics, however, have zeroed in on the one area of the media where the state's presence still predominates - national television. Through its control of seats on the board of the joint stock companies that control the media corporations that own particular stations, it is argued, the government exerts undue influence on national television channels. What does the evidence actually show?
Last month, Medialogia (www.medialogia.ru), Russia's leading private media research firm, released its fourth annual survey. It shows that in 2006 pro-government parties received 54.9% of all the air time devoted to major political parties, up from 45.4% in 2005. The survey also breaks down how often parties were discussed positively and negatively on seven national television channels.
Last year the pro-Putin United Russia Party was mentioned positively more than twice as often as all other parties combined. This large preponderance, however, is a bit misleading. United Russia may indeed mentioned far more often than any other party, but not always favorably. A direct comparison shows that positive reports about United Russia outnumbered negative ones 58% to 42%, a modest 16-point margin.
Medialogia's detailed statistics also demolish the myth that Putin dominates national television and allows no critical reporting. In 2006, for example, Putin garnered more than a third of total mentions among the top 10 most popular figures on national television, while his ratio of positive to negative reporting was just over 3:1.
Is this too high or too low? Russian television viewers seem to feel it is just about right. In 2005, two-thirds said they had seen no change in television coverage of Putin and that he was covered about the right amount. Moreover, by nearly 4-1, they said opposition parties can freely express their views on national television and in national newspapers. Interestingly, even 56% of Communist Party voters agreed.
These results will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the variety of media options available to most Russians. These include local television and radio stations, half of which are in private hands, the private Ren-TV network that reaches roughly 113 million people in the Commonwealth of Independent States through its 406 commercial stations, as well as cable and satellites channels that are available to about 20% of the population nationwide.
To sum up, under Putin, for the first time in modern Russian history, independent media have become profitable. The typical Russian media conglomerate today is a mixture of foreign investors, Russian banks and local governments. If a local project goes national, as in the case last year of St Petersburg's Fifth Channel, the shares owned by local governments are often bought out by private investors. Russia already has more private media outlets than any other European country, and as long as advertising revenues continue to rise 15% and more each year (87% annually on the Internet), privatization will continue its unstoppable advance.
Democracy and civil society
Surely one of the most disingenuous claims about Putin is that he has undermined democracy by abolishing gubernatorial elections. Here is how the process actually works. Parties that have won seats in a regional legislature may submit names for governor to a presidential commission, which reviews them and makes its recommendations to the president. The president then forwards his nomination to the local parliament for ratification. Unless there is a serious objection, the candidate proposed by the head of the party that was victorious in the previous elections is typically nominated, a practice that is expected to become legally binding on the president this year.
Critics say this violates the separation of powers enshrined in the Russian constitution. The Constitutional Court, however, reviewed this argument at the end of 2005 and disagreed because "the final decision on appointment ... is taken specifically by the legislative body". The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on legal matters, and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe subsequently conducted their own reviews and found that the new system conforms with European norms.
But while the media's attention has focused on the appointment of governors, there has been almost no mention of the dramatic expansion of local self-government that Putin introduce simultaneously. Last year, tens of thousands of new civic communities began functioning independently of state authorities, leading to an increase in civic initiative and philanthropy.
As a spokesman from the Siberian Civic Initiative put it: "Many Russia watchers are operating under the impression that the environment in Russia for NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that receive support from international donors has deteriorated during the last year. It has, in fact, improved for those that have expertise in building democracy from the ground up because they are in demand by government departments. Government is saying to NGOs, 'Help us, we do not know how to do this,' and NGOs are generating income by providing their services."
And speaking of NGOs, while the view that they are under threat has been widely popularized, no major media outlet has bothered to explain how their number has swelled from 100,000 when Putin took office to more than 600,000 today. Western financial assistance is certainly not the key, since foreign donations constitute only 8.4% of all donations to civic organizations. Could it be that the severely criticized NGOs legislation of December 2005 has actually proved beneficial?
One could go on and on, but these examples should suffice to provide a sense of the hurdles that even the most thoughtful and well-informed media consumers face when trying to understand the changes that have taken place in Russia since Putin took office. I will not even mention Russia's economic miracle - eight straight years of economic growth that have led to a fivefold increase in GDP, except to highlight one telling point. It astonishes people to learn that return on foreign investment in Russia is an order or magnitude higher than in China, and that foreign companies that invested in Russia have outperformed those that invested in China every year since 2001.
The fact that China is widely regarded as a more attractive investment opportunity than Russia despite yielding much lower profits, having more corruption and far less political freedom, and facing enormous future political uncertainties testifies amply to the role that media-fed cultural preconceptions play in relations with Russia.
Russia as part of the West
If the main obstacles in this relationship derive from a profound discomfort with the notion that Russia is rapidly becoming just like us in the West, then the fundamental task before us is learning how to envisage Russia as part of the West.
It sounds simplistic and naive to say that hostility toward Russia is rooted in a mental image. How hard can it be to change an image? Many scholars have shown, however, that the "invention of tradition", to use British historian and author Eric Hobsbawm's felicitous phrase, has always set the terms for what is accepted political discourse. People have no problem embracing a completely invented tradition or history, so long as it is reinforced by a consistent media message. That is why, realistically, we cannot expect Western perceptions about Russia to change any time soon.
But that does not mean such efforts are bootless. Regardless of what some may wish to believe, Russia has already evolved so far from the Soviet Union that the conceptual struggle to preserve a link between the two is destined to fail. The only question is whether we in the West will be able to change our cultural narrative about Russia sooner, at a lesser cost to our relations, or later, at a far greater cost.
We can take some comfort in the fact that this has all happened before. Reflecting on how dramatically the world had changed since his youth, British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-79) recalled:
In the days of my own childhood, it was still the English against the French, these latter being the traditional enemy. I can remember even now the schoolbook which said that the English owed all their freedom to their kinship with the Germans, for liberty went back to the Teutons in their primeval forests. The Reformation, the emancipation of religion, came from Martin Luther, and Germany in any case had long enjoyed federal government, state rights and even free, independent, self-governing cities, like Hamburg.
The antithesis to all this was to be found in the Latin countries. I still remember how it was all spelled out: Italy stood for the Papacy, Spain had had the Inquisition, while France, twice over, if you please, had chosen to live under Napoleonic dictatorships, an evil which, in my young days, had as yet had no parallel in other countries.
Then, as now, success lies in recognizing that our former enemy's cultural heritage is not just similar to our own, it in fact is our own. Only when we recognize this fundamental truth will we be able to rewrite the script of "Western democracy" to include Russia, just as we once rewrote it to include Germany and Japan.