New centre of excellence to explore choices of Russian modernisation

10 Jan 2012

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies – Choices of Russian Modernisation is one of the new Centres of Excellence (CoE) in Research selected by the Academy of Finland for 2012–2017. The centre is set to dig deep into issues concerning democracy and reform in Russia as well as explore the challenges of recent developments in Russia and how to solve them.

Led by Professor Markku Kivinen, Director of the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki, the new centre will focus on five key challenges in Russia:

  1. Modernising economic structures by diversifying the structure of the production industry, now mainly based on energy production.
  2. The Russian political system is a hybrid of authoritarian conventions and formal democracy, whose vulnerability was recently exposed by protests and dissent following Russia’s parliamentary elections.
  3. The institutions of the Russian welfare state are weak and there are no overall strategies for a welfare state model. Russia has yet to solve major problems within social welfare and healthcare.
  4. Russia has many agendas in its foreign policy. Like in the Cold War era, there are alliances forming such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). While becoming ever more integrated into the economic structures of Europe, Russia continues to build its own sphere of influence as a super power.
  5. Post-Soviet Russia is constructing its cultural identity by looking both to the future and to the past. As modern values grow stronger, so too do traditional religious beliefs and many of the darker aspects of the Soviet era, such as the tendency to constantly demonise reality and seek out the guilty.

None of these challenges is easily remedied. On the other hand, the situation in Russia is still very much unresolved. The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies will therefore strive to challenge the prevailing viewpoints in both Russia and the Western world, which often pigeonhole Russia as a preordained system and so fail to consider the significance of the choices and actors involved.

Dealing with the legitimacy of power

Professor Markku Kangaspuro, Deputy Director of the Aleksanteri Institute, is keen to underline the structural challenges of Russia’s political system. Russian democracy is built around a balance of power between the State Duma, the Government and the president. If the Duma opposes the policy of the president’s government or its ministers, it will be dissolved and a new general election called. This is a threat that most Duma deputies and parties would rather not face. Party-list elections, where successful candidates have been selected by party heads, combined with the high election threshold in Russia, result in a Duma deputy corps consisting of a very select group of politicians.

In a classical sense, Kangaspuro says, Russian democracy is about the exercise of power. Rather than distribute power, the aim is to legitimate power using a constricted procedure that is labelled ‘democracy’. The result is twofold. On the one hand, the presidential democracy, the president’s government and the party-list elections together produce a maximal amount of stability for the continued exercise of political power, exactly as intended.

On the other hand, this system is inherently flawed due to its inability to provide alternatives, which may ultimately result in social stagnation. And so maintaining stability is treated as having value in itself. The lack of alternatives makes it increasingly difficult to find solutions to accumulating problems. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on the continuity of power creates problems for its legitimation. With no alternatives, voting becomes a form of ritualised democracy that fails to fulfil its mission, not even to legitimate power.

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies – Choices of Russian Modernisation has only just been launched at the Aleksanteri Institute. The centre is headed by Professor Kivinen and Professor Tuomas Forsberg from the University of Tampere acts as deputy director. The centre consists of five research clusters headed by the directors together with Professor Arto Mustajoki (University of Helsinki), Jean Monet Professor Pami Aalto (University of Tampere) and Professor Vladimir Gel’man (European University at Saint Petersburg, Russia). The five clusters involve 22 research projects, some with several researchers.

More information:

  • Markku Kivinen, Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies, Aleksanteri Institute, tel. +358 9 191 23654, +358 50 563 6309, firstname.lastname(at)
  • Markku Kangaspuro, Aleksanteri Institute, tel. +358 9 191 23650, +358 50 522 3393, firstname.lastname(at)


Academy of Finland Communications
Communications Trainee Eetu Lehto
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