Mary Dejevsky: Russia Notebook, Part 3

Obninsk 'science city', Novosti building. and Skolkovo - Medvedev's pet project

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WEDNESDAY, 9 NOVEMBER

A MARGIN NOTE: One (Russian) participant in the Valdai conference observed that Monday had been the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and “no one even joked about it”.

Certainly, year by year, the Soviet period seems further and further away.

OBNINSK ‘SCIENCE CITY’

On our way back to Moscow, we stop off at Obninsk, a one-time centre of Soviet industry, now redesignated  “science city”, by the Kaluga region, and enjoying similar tax breaks.

I was in a group taken to a state-of-the art cardboard packaging factory – which offered a few points of interest beyond the mundane business of packaging.

- The director was a former member of the Academy of Sciences, who had specialised in laser technology, which is what is being used at this factory, imported from Germany and with German investment. The factory floor seemed quite empty, though we were told that 150 people were employed. 

- Packaging is growing market in Russia, as its goods are considered “under-packaged” by international standards – half as much packaging is used per capita as in most Western countries. There is capacity for growth, apparently, even as more advanced countries are cutting back on packaging for ecological reasons.

- Russian companies, it transpired, had also scaled back luxury packaging after 2008 financial crisis, but the market generally was still flourishing.

- The company moved from Moscow two years ago, so it could reduce costs and expand.

- The director seemed at least as interested in the company football team, as in packaging. The team won its mini-league last year and plays a tournament abroad once a year. Last year was Egypt. Probably not Egypt this year, he said. The team vows to give up smoking and to drink in moderation, which makes for healthier workers, something the director also sees as part of his mission. Concern with health is a rather “new Russian” attitude. 

 THURSDAY 10 NOVEMBER

A meeting with the director and senior executives from the Skolkovo technology centre outside Moscow – President Medvedev’s pet project, which is supposed to be the dynamo for Russia’s “modernisation” – a word and a programme about which there is much scepticism. They have come to meet us, at the central office of what used to be the official Soviet – and now main Russian – news agency – RIA Novosti. This, itself, is a revelation almost as interesting as what Prof Stanislav Naumov and his colleagues have to say about Skolkovo.

NOVOSTI BUILDING

This used to be the dingy heartland of official news, where, as Moscow correspondent through the collapse of communism, I and my fellow members of the foreign press corps would attend increasingly lively, and disputatious, press conferences. This is where the leaders of the August 1991 coup held the press conference that marked the high point, and the beginning of the end, of their brief rule. In previous years, the Valdai group has been ushered in through a side entrance, up three flights of stairs, through a narrow corridor with a coffee machine, into something like a classroom.

The whole building has now been completely transformed. Spacious public areas, light wood, a set of suites, a main hall, and a small lecture theatre – which is where we met the Skolkovo group. But it was hard to throw off the question of how much this refurbishment had cost. Does this say something about where the power lies in today’s Russia.

SKOLKOVO - MEDVEDEV’S PET PROJECT

He sees Skolkovo as something like a cross between MIT and Silicon Valley, that would attract start-ups, provide ‘incubators’ for inventions and draw a mix of entrepreneurs and top scientists. It was not at all clear how feasible this will be. Some of the Americans pointed out that Silicon Valley had developed organically without government involvement or encouragement.

The bigger purpose of the project seemed to be to end the mentality, inherited from Soviet times, that “initiative is punishable” and that intellectuals would never “become rich”.

The questions were pointed, but the answers were more frank and sometimes questioning, too, leaving the distinct impression that this was a work still at quite an early stage. Among the questions were:

- was there not opposition from other top institutions, which might fear their scientists being lured away by more money and better conditions? – answer, yes, but there is room for everyone.

- might the project slip down the list of national priorities, now that Dmitry Medvedev will leave the presidency, probably to become prime minister, next spring? Answer: we doubt it (but they never really answered the question).

- is it an attempt to compete with China? Answer: no – but one of the panel who had been to China admitted obliquely to amazement at the scale of China’s science and technology effort.

OPPOSITION LEADERS

‘LIBERAL DEMOCRATS’ AND COMMUNISTS: We met the leaders of the two parties now known ironically as “museum parties” – Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s inaptly named Liberal Democrat Party of Russia, which is actually on the far right, and the Communist Party of Russia, headed by Gennadi Zyuganov. Both parties have both existed under their present leaders since the end of the Soviet Union. Both could also be regarded as the only two real political parties in Russia, in terms of their organisation and identifiable platforms.

Both leaders have aged considerably in recent years.

ZYUGANOV seems tired and may regret that he – unlike other former communist party leaders in east and central Europe – did not transform and rename his party after the fall of communism to be a centre-left social-democrat party. In fact, ratings for the communists have been edging up recently, with more elderly people concerned about their low pensions and a new generation of young people who do not remember the negative aspects of communist rule.

Zyuganov trades to an extent on nostalgia for Soviet glory days: we used to make world-class planes, we had a successful space programme; we had proper emergency services which would have tackled the forest fires of last summer; we had cheap energy, we had no violent ethnic conflicts. Real Russian (obshcherusskii) character is uniting and tolerant, not divisive and exclusive. (This seems to be his attempt to parry the Russian nationalism of Zhirinovsky.)

ZHIRINOVSKY went almost immediately into campaign mode, against foreigners, spongers, market traders from the Caucasus etc, and turned answers to all questions into just another nationalist rant. In principle, he may have a new constituency in the younger generation of nationalist-minded Russians who came out to protest in Manezh Square in December 2010 after the death of a Russian football fan, killed in a brawl with migrants from the Caucasus. But he declined to answer a question about whether he wanted his party to be associated with this strand of opinion and whether he thought the growth of extreme nationalism helped or hindered his political aims.

His platform has remained almost unchanged for the best part of 20 years, which is both his appeal and a liability.   

JUST RUSSIA – ‘just’ as in justice – led by SERGEI  MIRONOV

Just Russia is only five years old, the latest in a series of new parties – there tends to be one each time there are parliamentary and presidential elections – which has to field claims that it is just a stooge of the Kremlin, set up to make it look as though there is a real contest and catch votes that might otherwise go nowhere or boost one or other of the opposition parties – communists or LDPR – to the point where they became dangerous. Mironov, though, comes across as a more interesting character: intelligent, articulate and politically astute. This, of course, does not guarantee him votes against the louder opposition parties on the one hand, and the establishment party, United Russia, on the other.

Four points from his answers:

First, his party’s platform includes a call for the restoration of direct elections to regional governor posts – which became indirect elections under Putin.

Second, his view is that the political situation in Russia is more fluid at the moment than is widely thought abroad. He says that his party is polling far more in the regions than the single figures given officially (but then he would say that, wouldn’t he). Also, though, that the ‘administrative resources’ – the advantage of incumbency – marshalled customarily by United Russia could have less effect at future elections because of the internet.

Third, he said that Just Russia was joining forces with the other opposition parties, the Communists and the LDPR, to station observers in as many polling stations as they could, across the country, for parliamentary elections on 4 December, and that they would take their own exit polls and post them on the internet. If there was a glaring discrepancy between these figures and the ones officially announced – he suggested that the variation between exit polls and real numbers at free and fair elections was no more than 2 per cent – he could not rule out calling supporters into the streets. This may be hyperbole, but it was still interesting.

FRIDAY 11 NOVEMBER

Dinner meeting with Putin at Le Cheval Blanc, at the Novy Vek (New Age) Equestrian Club at Pozdnyakovo, 15km north-west of Moscow. This is the account of the venue, published in my Independent “Notebook”. 

However many times I visit Russia, there's always something to surprise. As one of a group of international Russia specialists invited annually to meet Vladimir Putin, I've been flown by private plane from Moscow to the Black Sea for dinner. I've been on a day trip to Chechnya, and I've been taken on a mystery tour through glitzy suburbs to the then President's official residence. In surprises, this year was no exception.

Bused through the stop-go-stop traffic of Moscow's Friday evening rush-hour, we were off to dine with Putin at his favourite restaurant, Le Cheval Blanc. An hour or so later, we found ourselves in the pitch dark, as the snow fell in enormous globules, tramping through post-Soviet Russia's first private equestrian club. Fortunately, I'd opted for boots over shoes. There were those in very risky heels. It had not occurred to any of us that the cheval of the name might be just that, and that there would be more than a hundred of them.

Anatoli Merkulov, the owner, met us, immaculately attired in a dress suit and tie – appropriate to receiving the Prime Minister later – and escorted us through the first stable block. His own favourite steed stamped around a stall with its own heating system. A startlingly elegant golden-tinged beast had been presented to Russia's current President, Dmitry Medvedev, by the President of Kazakhstan; an Arabian stallion was a gift from Turkmenistan. Medvedev was said to be a horse-lover; Putin less so.

Merkulov related how he had bought an abandoned collective dairy farm after the Soviet Union collapsed, with money from a fish-trading business he had set up with Scandinavia. Riding clubs existed in Soviet times, he said, but they were few and far between, and all the horses were dispersed as the system collapsed "for various reasons" – an elliptical phrase covering myriad irregularities.

Merkulov's club is now regarded as the premier Russian stud farm and stables, but – 13 years after it first opened – it's one of five in that single district alone, with dozens more dotted around the capital and the country. How do you become a member and what does it cost? There are no membership fees as such, you buy your way in by paying to board your horses. This is the new Russia, the new class, and it doesn't come cheap.

Our penultimate stop, after the veterinary block and before the restaurant, was one of three dressage rings, where mostly young riders were practising in front of a vast, angled mirror. After we had watched for a few minutes, the woman instructor approached on the most perfect white horse – like a unicorn without the horn. This was Merkulov's wife, it transpired, and, of course, her horse was the inspiration for Le Cheval Blanc.

THE PUTIN INTERVIEW

The highlights are included in the Independent article of 12 November. But here a few additional impressions.

- Putin was late. He is usually late, but he was more than two hours late, which created some irritation among the guests.

- He looked tired, though perked up completely when he started answering questions, almost as though he had been “switched on”. He always seems to quite like these exchanges, treating them as a personal, as well as political, challenge. He is completely relaxed and in charge, and does not feel the need to look over his shoulder to anyone.

- He seemed more formal than the previous year, which may have reflected the fact that our visit this time was in the middle of the political year and on the edge of Moscow, not at a guest house at Sochi on the Black Sea (as in two previous years) at the end of the summer holiday. But also the imminence of parliamentary elections (on 4 December) and his quite recently announced decision to stand again for the presidency in March 2012.

- A couple of themes not in my previous Independent report:

1. He took a very hard line on revived US plans for missile defence. The Russians have always hated this, but various compromises, plus Obama’s “re-set” of relations with Russia seemed to have taken some of the sting out of the dispute. There are clearly fears in Russia that the US will go ahead with the scheme, and that it will – however it is presented, and wherever it is sited – be directed primarily against Russia.

2. he spoke at some length about his Eurasia Union plan, which had been the subject of speeches and articles in the weeks before. He seemed at pains to stress that this was not an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union, and not intended in any hostile or defensive spirit, but would start essentially as an economic free trade zone, among former Soviet republics that wanted to join - much as the EU had begun.

The EU model (despite all the eurozone’s troubles) thus came across in quite a positive light. Specifically on Ukraine - which some say has been given an ultimatum by Russia to choose between its EU ambitions and the Eurasia Union, and threatened with tougher conditions for importing Russian gas – Putin insisted that the choice was entirely up to Ukraine and it need not be ‘either-or’.

POSTSCRIPT

And for anyone interested, this is what there was for dinner:
Fillets of lightly smoked troute with beet leaves;
Escalope of duck liver and goat cheese;
Venison solyanka soup;
Rhubarb sorbet;
Tuna steak with leeks OR veal cheeks with gren asparagus and morels;
Pear soup with caramel.
Accompanied by: Gavi di Bavi Rovereto Vigna Vecchia 2009 and Barolo 2007.

* Mary Dejevsky: Russia Notebook, Part 1
* Mary Dejevsky: Russia Notebook, Part 2
* Putin attacks Britain and US for 'violating Libya resolution'

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