Patriots and innovations – incompatible match?

Salla Nazarenko,
Doctor of Social Sciences, International Affairs’ Specialist,
Union of Finnish Journalists,

Experts on innovations often talk about “Russian innovation paradox.” This means the fact that despite political rhetoric and even concrete innovation strategies, the Russian performance in innovations remain low.

This paradox has been explained, among other things, by weak horizontal linkages between institutions, inadequate legal provision such as intellectual rights, brain drain, negative effects of natural resources, Soviet-inherited top-down management culture and geography.  But are these factor enough to explain the gap in innovations, when the state eagerly promotes them?

In order to answer this question, I  talked to eight experts on Russian innovations between June 2020 and January 2021. The interviewees were people with long experience in Russian business life, and also people actively working in Russian enterprises. They explained the relatively low amount of innovations by bureaucracy, by the remains of Soviet-style management style in Russia and also by “fear of failure”: despite officially welcoming innovations, in Russian enterprises there are little real opportunities for trial and error.

One major feature of Russian business environment is the growing role of the state both in terms of government regulation and concrete business ownership. According to different estimates, the state owns up to near 50 percent of enterprises. BOFIT estimated already in 2017 that  state enterprises and the state may generate up to 40 percent of Russian GDP.

Officially Russian leadership takes the need for innovations and diversification of the economy very seriously. During Dimitri Medvedev’s Presidency, several strategic initiatives aiming at structural changes in the economy were made. Technology parks, business hubs and innovation-oriented businesses were supported and established, including Skolkovo Foundation that runs Skolkovo Innovation Center, often called “Russian Silicon Valley”.

One interesting feature of the innovation environment has to do with the official political strategies of the state. Development of innovations would require an open society with a mindset open to the outside world. Current Russian leadership shows little such interest. One example of this has to do with my primary scholarly interest, patriotism. Patriotism is a term that has become one of the key terms in Russian political discourse since the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

State programmes of patriotic education were introduced in Russia in 2001, and right now the ongoing programme is fifth one, aimed at years 2021-2025. The budget of the programmes has grown steadily; it has more than doubled in real terms since their beginning .The emphasis of the programmes has also fluctuated within the years. The first programme paid attention to whole society; forther the attention shiften to schools and educational institutions. The current one aims at engaging no less than 24 percent of all Russians, including 600 000 young people to take part in the activities of “Yunarmija”, the military-patriotic youth movement established by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2016, and three million children are to take part in the children’s movements.

The content of programmes are increasingly militaristic and they underline preparation to a possible war. The Russian foreign policy orientation has for centuries been based on outside threats, and since the 2014 annexation of Crimea the discourse has intensified. However, the impact of the programmes is not very well articulated. According to opinion polls, the amount of Russians considering themselves patriots is relatively high, but the content of patriotism itself remains unclear. Vice versa, ordinary Russians seem to embrace  an individualistic and apolitical form of patriotism somewhat detached from the official discourse.

How does the aim for a more diverse economy, better innovation policy and competitiveness fit into the big picture, where society is becoming increasingly militaristic and the state patriotic discourse leans on outside threats?

Not very well, since the two discourses seem contradictory. A country that sees the imaginary “West” as an enemy, and where military spending is fourth biggest in the world despite the moderate size of the economy can hardly transform its internal or external image itself into one of  an innovation hub.

However, as also demonstated in my interviews: young generation of Russians are multilingual, business-oriented and believe in change. The programmes of patriotic education might be massive in volume but hardly so in impact. Young professional living in big cities haver much more in common with their peers everywhere in the world than with the Kremlin spin-doctors still using the Soviet vocabulary.

Expert article 3055

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