'What' Not 'Who' Will Shape Russia in 2008

As the 200th anniversary year of formal diplomatic ties between Russia and the United States comes to a close, it is a natural moment to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. That is not exactly an easy thing to do these days. In our broader relationship, mutual frustration often obscures mutual interest. And nowhere is that mutual interest more obvious than in the country's remarkable economic resurgence, which is about to enter a crucial new phase in a transition that has already brought Russians a very long way from the traumas of the 1990s.

At the end of 2007, we have been naturally focused on the "who" questions: Who is going to succeed President Vladimir Putin? Who is going to occupy which leadership positions after the State Duma and presidential elections? While the answers to these "who" questions obviously matter greatly, it seems to me that it is the "what" questions looming over the 2008 transition that will shape Russia's future and the future of our economic relationship for many years to come. What is the country going to do with its hard-won stability? What is it going to do with the moment of energy-driven opportunity that lies before it? Three other specific questions come to mind.

First, what will Russia do to integrate more into the global economy? This is not just an academic question. The faster that Moscow enters the World Trade Organization and other key institutions on the same terms that apply to everyone else, the faster its industries will become more competitive and the faster its economy will diversify. Since the conclusion of our bilateral WTO agreement a year ago, the United States has worked to help Russia accelerate the completion of its remaining membership talks with our negotiators in almost daily contact with their counterparts.

Another dimension of integration is making U.S.-Russian trade and investment a genuine two-way street. U.S. investment in Russia is expanding rapidly, up more than 50 percent last year alone. Russian investment in the United States is also growing. The $2.3 billion acquisition last year of Oregon Steel Mill by Evraz, Russia's largest steelmaker by domestic volume, is an especially impressive example.

A second, related question is: What will Russia do to diversify its economy beyond oil and gas? High energy prices have driven the country's recent economic growth, but the potential to diversify beyond hydrocarbons is substantial. Even today, oil and gas exports amount to only about 20 percent of gross domestic product. The country's economic future rests on its resourceful, creative and well-educated people. Tapping that potential and building an innovative, knowledge-based economy is entirely possible, but it will require vision, urgency and sustained effort in which the roles of the private sector and foreign partnerships will be crucial. Boeing's work in support of Sukhoi's promising regional jet project is an excellent example of how such partnerships benefit both sides and help the country diversify.

Third, what will Russia do to improve its physical, human and institutional infrastructure? Without rapid upgrading of the country's roads, railroads, airports, seaports and power generation capacity, modernization and diversification of the economy of this sprawling country simply will not happen. Protection and development of human capital is even more important. History is rich with examples of the nation's contributions to human advancement -- from Boris Pasternak in literature, to Dmitry Shostakovich in music, to Mikhail Chumakov helping to conquer polio, to Yury Gagarin and the scientists behind him who pioneered the exploration of space. But how do you develop that potential without investing aggressively in the education and health care systems?

Another crucial infrastructure challenge is institutional. What will Russia do to build the modern economic and political institutions essential to sustaining its prosperity and growth? Without these institutions, without the rule of law to protect property, without checks and balances to hold officials accountable and without stable and predictable regulatory and investment regimes, it's impossible over the long term to attract capital and know-how or to ensure a healthy economy. How do you fight problems like corruption without an independent media and an independent judiciary to shine a light on abuses and deter them?

These are not abstract questions of political values, nor are they about U.S. lecturing or mentoring, about which I know Russians have no difficulty containing their enthusiasm these days. These are questions that only Russians themselves can solve and for which Americans certainly do not have all the answers. But they cut right to the heart of whether the country is going to realize its full -- and enormous -- potential as an economy and a society.

Russia's "who" questions will be answered soon enough. It is the "what" questions, however, that will then come squarely into view. Each of them is interconnected: integration into the global economy will spur diversification; diversification won't succeed without urgent attention to the physical, human and institutional infrastructure; and today's dangerous excesses, like corruption and bureaucracy, will eat up the country's successes without a serious and sustained effort against them. None of these challenges is easy, but Russia has before it one of those rare moments when it can deal successfully with all of them. For our part, for the United States and for U.S. business, it remains profoundly in our interests for Russia to succeed.

One thing that has not changed over the first 200 years of our history together is the reality that we matter to each other -- and to the future of global order -- in a way that few other relationships do. As we begin our third century together, what also seems clear is that our economic ties are becoming a more and more important part of our relationship. This growth will benefit both of us for generations to come.

William Burns is the U.S. ambassador to Russia.