‘This Results in a Good Combination of Enthusiasm and Intellect’
In October, Professor Abel Polese from the University of Edinburgh Institute of Geography gave a series of lectures at the Higher School of Economics for students of the Faculty of Politics, as part of the IMESS Visiting Scholars programme. Boris Zhelezov, Deputy Vice Rector and Head of the Office of International Academic Mobility of the HSE, and Abel Polese himself told us about the lectures and the IMESS programme.
― Boris, how did the Higher School of Economics become a member of the IMESS programme?
― This is a very interesting programme supported by the European Commission, which in many ways stimulates international academic (student as well as teacher) mobility. The core of this programme is our long-time partner – the University College London. For a number of years we have had an exchange programme for undergraduate as well as postgraduate students. The student do not receive a second diploma as part of this programme, but they have the opportunity to go for an internship, spend a semester in this college, listen to courses, consult with colleagues, and work in a wonderful library which provides access to other London libraries. University College London has a School of Slavonic and East European Studies, hence their interest in cooperation with Russian universities. And we have the opportunity of entering a broader research space.
University College London started an educational programme several years ago under the support of Erasmus Mundus foundation and in cooperation with such universities as Charles University in Prague, Corvinus University of Budapest, University of Helsinki, Jagiellonian University and the University of Tartu. According to the terms of the programme, we could only join it as an institutional partner after the completion of the pilot stage. This is why we recommended our students to take part in this programme during the first two years.
— What is the essence of this programme?
— For two years students study and receive diplomas from two European universities, one of which is the University College London and the other is one of the universities from the list. At the same time they receive a bursary which is sufficient for living and studying in two countries. This programme is also innovative from a management point of view, since in addition to the two diplomas of different universities, the students receive one general document, which is a standard European appendix to a diploma.
Starting this year, the Higher School of Economics has become a fully legitimate member of the consortium. We were accepted to the club, and next year we are expecting 10 students who are now studying at the University College London and have chosen the HSE as their second university. They are students from various countries, and they should confirm their choice before we enroll them on our programme. They have preliminarily chosen three areas: economics, international affairs and political science. By the way, this, in spite of some skepticism, confirms that there is some interest in Russian studies and in education at the HSE in the West, particularly in Great Britain. This is the first strand of our participation in the IMESS programme.
There is also a second component, the academic one. This part is financed by the EU and allows researchers who work in West European universities to come to consortium members in Eastern Europe. The researcher receives a grant and can spend up to three months in a university conducting research as well as teaching duties negotiated with the hosting university. Last year there was a high interest in this opportunity at the HSE, and we have chosen six candidates from the applications. And Abel Polese was the first to applicant to the HSE. Fortunately he was accepted and became one of the six participants of this research component of the programme.
Abel Polese, Professor at the University of Edinburgh, Institute of Geography
― What were the topics of the classes you conducted at the Higher School of Economics?
― I held three seminars, each dedicated to one of the topics I work on. The first was on the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ which took place in the CIS, why some countries experienced this phenomenon, and the others didn’t, why they were successful in some places, and in other places they weren’t. I covered this theme as part of the course on political transformation. The second topic is related to my doctoral thesis on Ukrainian identity in Odessa, including the question of national formation, how it is implemented not only from the political point of view: while some decisions are made by political elites, the question of how ordinary people would react to the changes remains unsolved. Informal economics as a means of survival in the period of transformation is a macroeconomic problem to my view, this is not only microeconomics. I think that my conclusions on the results of the research in Ukraine can be expanded for many other countries of the world. People are ready to pay informally and others are ready to accept those payments – and this is one small sign of the system which functions this way. I do not analyze such things as bribes as dysfunctional signs of a system, I look at them as system supporting elements.
If we look at the U.S. (they say that there are no bribery there but this is not a fact), their system is based on some foundation, on some elements. And in another country the system will be based not on the same elements. I think that it is wrong to think of a gift to a doctor as a bribe if his salary is 1000 roubles (about $32). This is just an element of the system, this is not a bribe, but a sign of gratitude, showing that a person understands the doctor’s difficult situation or values his qualification. The governments say that they have no money in their budgets since no one pays taxes. The taxes are so high that no one wants to pay them, and there are no taxes for informal payments. Since you cannot get rid of the informal payment, you cannot gather more money, but since you lack money, you cannot increase salaries. The circle has been closed. This is a macroeconomic problem. But if we prohibit everything informal, then a policeman will be needed in every room, and doctors will just leave their jobs, since they won’t be able to live on $200 a month.
― Where does you interest in Post-Soviet countries come from?
― In 2004 I visited Ukraine. Then I taught in Kiev, and my students were missing classes, so I started to get interested in what was going on. I went to Maidan. I decided to take a neutral position, some scientists then even lived on Maidan, and I just decided to come and look with my own eyes, and not to believe journalists from either side. And I liked it, the crowd was interesting, unlike what was said about it in the West. They were saying that the people spontaneously went to the streets. Some journalists were saying that America gave money for that. And I just started thinking and concluded that it was a coincidence of different circumstances. Since, if it is enough to just give money to successfully conduct a ‘colour revolution’, then why did nothing happened Byelorussia, despite the large amount of money sent there? And on the other hand, it is also wrong to say that people went to the streets on their own. There was a very strong oppositional movement in Byelorussia. In the West they think that Lukashenko fabricated the results of the elections, but it is impossible to fabricate them to 80 or 90 percent! It is just that the opposition could not come to an understanding with itself. In Serbia the opposition united and presented one candidate, and all those who did not like Milosevic voted for that candidate. And they failed to negotiate in Byelorussia.
I understand that there is no objective opinion, but we, as researchers, were trying to remain neutral and avoid evaluations. That’s why we made a comparative analysis of all the CIS countries: why in some of them no one even spoke about such things, why in some of them they spoke of nothing else, and why some people went to the streets, but with different results.
― Why, in your view, did all those revolutions come to an end so quickly? In Ukraine the power has changed, there was a massacre in Kyrgyzstan, and in Georgia the oppositional movement is becoming stronger and stronger…
― If we associate ‘colour revolutions’ with political changes, then nothing will be clear. Politics is what is seen, it is what we discuss, and all of us pay attention to Saakashvili, Yushchenko, Yanukovich, whoever. But in fact ‘colour revolutions’ are a result of social processes, which made people come out onto the streets, they are stages of civil society development, which has also changed the countries. Each ‘colour revolution’ was followed with some changes in the region. In Russia the importance of civil society development was understood, there were organizations, including international, which supported local movements. Today the government has also become more actively involved in this work. In Ukraine, and here I can speak more competently, after the ‘orange revolution’ there were big changes, people started to participate in strikes like in the West. I think that this movement is not political, it has almost no political meaning, but nevertheless this is one of the succeeding phenomena, when there was mass enthusiasm.
Georgia before and after the revolution is two different countries. Despite the fact that today Saakashvili is not a democrat, he started to develop the country in the right way. I remember when they had a border with Adjara and it was impossible to cross it without a bribe. It all changed with Saakashvili: now you can travel there safely. He increased salaries for the police, and started to attract international investments. I am now working on a project on Georgia and Ukraine, and when I asked how much tax you need to pay if you take an additional worker to your company, I found out that in Georgia it is only 20 percent, and in Ukraine – as much as 70 (36% paid by the employer, and 33 by the employee)! Ukraine has a parliament and a democracy, but they cannot move forward, since they failed to negotiate, and the necessary decisions remained unmade for several years. So, Ukraine was sitting in a swamp for 5 years, and now that Yanukovich is in control, he has started to change something.
― Let’s get back to the educational programme. You have experience of teaching in different universities. Could you compare the students of the Higher School of Economics with other universities’ students?
― I like the HSE students very much, the atmosphere here is very friendly and open. And I am grateful to all students of the Faculties of Sociology and Politics. They are very interesting. On one hand, they are very young: here, higher education starts earlier, while in Great Britain at 18 you are only starting to think where to apply to. And here they are both very young and very grown-up at the same time. This results in a good combination of enthusiasm and intelligence. I think that since the Higher School of Economics has a very open approach to education, the students can develop in different spheres, they are given enough freedom for self-development. I talked to some master’s students. They are only 21 – 23, but they are already very well educated professionals! I see that they have a future: they can stay in research or go to another area and they will be successful in either case. I didn’t know anything about the Higher School of Economics before coming here. I thought I should try, since I needed some partners in Russia. And now I am willing to continue our cooperation.
― Apart from teaching, are you planning to cooperate with the HSE in any other areas, to conduct some joint research?
― Definitely. I spoke with Leonid Kosals, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Sociology, and Andrey Melville, Dean of the Faculty of Politics. Hopefully we will organize some sort of exchange for students and teachers. If you’re studying Russia, you should not read about it on the Internet, you should live here. The same for you: your students and teachers can work with Western literature, discover other points of view, talk with colleagues, and discuss some problems. Real cooperation starts with such things. Recently we founded a Russian Center in Edinburgh and we’re now trying to develop it. Leonid said that he is also involved in informal economics. My friend Peter Rogers and I are editors of a special journal in informal economics, and Leonid said that his laboratory can send us a couple of articles. I hope that this is the beginning of a long and successful cooperation.
Andrey Shcherbakov, HSE News Service