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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Various Writers Chronicle the Rise of the Neo-Soviet Union

The New Republic has a review of an avalanche of new books condemning the rise of the New Soviet Union entitled "All That Stands Between Democracy and Russia is . . . Russia!" Here it is via Russia Profile:

I.

Has Russia blown it? The Kremlin's Edward Scissorhands-like deftness in seizing headlines by seizing billionaires and passing their private properties to KGB stooges, eliminating elections for regional executives, dictating national television content, intimidating NGOs, and cutting off the gas to spite its face is dreadfully impressive. By contrast, some former Soviet dominions have grabbed headlines by ostensible strides toward democracy. The question is not whether Russia is headed toward democracy any more than Georgia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan is headed that way. Sure, unlike Russia, Ukraine has a real parliament that (if it lasts) has the power to discipline the executive branch. But all three countries lack an independent judiciary and a genuine civil service-that is, an honest and effective state, without which democracy does not work.

The real issue, rather, is a muffed opportunity (again). Most of the euphoria in Russia in the 1990s-when macroeconomic stabilization, a six-month project, took seven years-emanated from a gross overestimation of actual structural reforms. Despite the leftist hysteria over the neo-liberal bogeyman, economic liberalization in Russia barely took place, and today it remains woefully partial for a normal market economy. But a few analysts, looking beyond the misunderstood 1990s, speculated that with a highly urbanized society, universal literacy, and a formidable education system and R&D community, as well as a policy course of substantial privatization, post-communist Russia was poised for an economic breakout. In 1993, Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson published Russia 2010-And What It Means for the World, presenting five plausible scenarios, all of which entailed some version of a stable market economy, and one of which was called "The Miracle." In 1996, Richard Layard and John Parker enthused without equivocation about "the coming Russian boom." These were longer-term views. Two years later, however, Boris Yeltsin's flimflam financial infrastructure defaulted. "Reform" was pronounced dead; the country, finished.

But around 2000, the euphoria returned. Russia boomed, and analysts attributed much of the upswing to President Putin, a supposed "modernizer."

Russia under Putin has gone from a state that was captive of dubious business interests to big business that is captive of a dubious state. Solve a problem, create a problem. Today's ham-fisted dirigisme of individual firms, and of the economy as a whole, may be endangering the country's post-1998 economic roll.

II.

Andrew Wilson's Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World is the best of the recent books on the new Russia, but it misses an opportunity almost as big as the one Russia appears to be blowing. This work, by a smart London-based specialist on Ukraine, draws one of the few accurate portraits of how electoral politics operate across Eurasia. Although the book is choppy-the same campaigns recur in different chapters-its content is scintillating. It notes that Russian journalistic exposйs turn out to be zakazъkha, "ordered up" column inches or airtime paid for, like advertising, by groups smearing business and political rivals with kompromat (compromising material, often completely fabricated).

To siphon votes from targeted politicians, "clones" are deployed who mouth the same platforms. "Doubles" with names nearly identical to those of targeted candidates further confuse voters. "Flies" are swarmed against a powerful opponent to take many tiny bites out of his or her voting base. "Cuckoo birds" are nested into opponents' ranks to sow dissension.

Meanwhile, spaces on the presumptive winning electoral lists, like some appointments in ministries, are outright sold to the highest bidders, who can expect to utilize their purchased offices to accrue fortunes. Of course, entering parliament (federal or regional) also affords immunity from criminal prosecution. This is great stuff, and right on the money.

Welcome to the liveliest sector of post-Soviet market economies-politics, which is business. Wilson attempts indignation, but really he revels in the delicious phoniness, writing "of parties that stand in elections but have no staff or membership or office; of bankers that stand as Communists, of well-paid insiders that stand as the regime's most vociferous opponents

None of this began with Putin. Wilson opens with the czarist-era police tradition of "active measures" to combat revolutionaries by infiltrating their cells and sowing division and demoralization with provocations, then suggests, unhelpfully, that "the denial of truth in the Soviet Union throughout most of the twentieth century created many of the preconditions for virtuality in the twenty-first." Finally, he throws in the explanatory towel by invoking Viktor Pelevin's satire Generation "P" (Generation Pepsi, the last Soviet generation), which depicts all politicos as merely digital, existing only on television.

Most of Wilson's sources on the fakery come from the fakers-"reports" in the dubious media, his own interviews with the slimeballs.

III.

Kremlin Rising, the parting shot of a husband-and-wife Washington Post team after four years as Moscow bureau chiefs, is about Russia falling. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser detail Russia's explosion of HIV (no health care reform), atrocities in Chechnya (no security-apparatus reform), military hazing and avoidance of conscription (no military reform), environmental spoilage (no administrative reform), and the dreariness of U.S.-Russia relations (deep mutual animosity). They revisit the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002, which inaugurated a two-year period when "about a thousand people would die in terrorist incidents in Russia, more than in Israel," including more than three hundred at an elementary school in the North Caucasus town of Beslan, which showcased the heartlessness of the hostage takers and the corrupt ineptitude of the government. Every Russian Baker and Glasser follow, and there are a lot, who tries to buck or change the system hits a wall. This is the grim Russia that readers of today's American reportage will recognize.

But within their simple frame of "Western-style liberal democracy" versus "Soviet leftovers," Baker and Glasser stumble upon something interesting. They arrived during Putin's first term, an era of a new flat tax and other economically liberalizing reforms, but as Putin undercuts "democracy" they discover that he is popular partly for that reason. This is the scandalous argument about a Russian "flight from freedom" that Richard Pipes advanced in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, and which Baker and Glasser cite, not quite knowing what to make of it. They hear it in conversations with Russian voters, who time and again "surprise" the reporters: a majority seem to crave order, and view the KGB (whence Putin) as solid preparation to meet that challenge. The mystery is thus not Putin, whom the authors interviewed in June 2001, finding him "distant and calculating," albeit "well briefed." Rather, the mystery, or the disappointment, is the Russian people.

In their best chapter, Baker and Glasser explore the phenomenon of Soviet retro. This is epitomized by the radio station launched in late 1998 called Nashe ("Ours"), whose winning formula of emphasizing the Soviet over the Western became widely emulated.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, provides the depressing book's coda in a newspaper article attributed to him from confinement, observing that his putative jailer, Putin, "is probably not a liberal or a democrat, but he is more liberal and more democratic than seventy percent of the population."

Anna Politkovskaya provides an angrier native version of Baker and Glasser's Russia falling. She works for a well-regarded Moscow newspaper, and in 2000 she won a Golden Pen Award from Russia's Union of Journalists for her dispatches from the war in Chechnya. Politkovskaya is often called Russia's best investigative journalist (a distinction that rightly belongs to Alexander Khinshtein). In Putin's Russia, patched together from her reportage, she insists that Russia is undergoing apocalypse, moral as well as social. The army is her special obsession, and she shows that officers press-gang conscripts into slave labor or beat them to death (five hundred such murders were registered in 2002). For her, Chechnya is not a far-off isolated war, but a corrupting infestation on all state institutions and the people.

In sum, the book is a jumble not only organizationally but also intellectually.

IV.

Backtracked reforms and an interminable insurgency in the Caucasus do not make for epic journalism-the kind that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, earned foreign reporters so many top prizes. But the books keep coming. Like his Washington Post colleagues, Andrew Jack, a former Financial Times correspondent in Russia, notes Russians' wounded pride and exhaustion. Gorbachev, one informant tells Jack, "said he would open us up to the world, but we just saw how poor we were. We believed that the Volga was the best car in the world. Now we understand what shit it is." Jack, too, came to understand quite a bit. He details the venality of the private mercantile media before their re-expropriation by Putin's Kremlin, the reasons many Russians are better off than they seem, and the oligarchs' exaggerated political power-more the result, a sociologist tells Jack, "of slick public relations than of reality." Jack even displays an ear for Russian humor, which distills the current political system. "Are you from the Kremlin?" asks a guy standing in a bus. "Are you from the KGB? Are you from St. Petersburg? No? Then get off my foot."

Putin dominates Jack's book even more than the leader dominates Russia, but the portrait we get is fairly acute. Jack sets the stage with the tale of an American's efforts in St. Petersburg in the 1990s to sell donated butter to raise funds for loans to small businesses, a program beneficial to Russia that its bureaucrats stymie until the shrewd, resourceful Putin, who served in the municipal government, brokers a multi-step deal, dancing around Moscow. Then, after being transferred to the capital, he becomes head of the Kremlin's Control Department, responsible for scrutinizing state functions, and begins compiling dossiers on the affairs of everyone at the top, even on mismanagement in his immediate boss's circle. This behavior controverts something that the occasionally too even-handed Jack neglects to dispel-namely, the laughable but still widely bought story line that Putin never sought power and was an accidental president.

V.

Whereas Japan is Western but not European, Russia is European but not Western. Westernization in Russia continues mostly to be decried as antithetical to "national" traditions. That self-imposed handicap is what makes Nicolai N. Petro's book about alternate national traditions seem promising. He contends that Russia possesses a native strain of democracy that thrived in a vibrant commercial setting-ancient Novgorod, an aristocratic-merchant republic with a collective assembly before its late fifteenth-century conquest by autocratic Moscow. After 1991, Novgorod's pols revived this heritage ("our own Russian Florence"), contrasting it to Moscow's despotism, and Petro argues that by redefining "reform as a return to the values of a better and more prosperous Russian past," Novgorodians got a better and more prosperous Russian present. Alas, today's Novgorod-where Governor Mikhail Prusak (who was born in Ukraine) has entered his fifteenth year in power-is neither a democracy nor an economic success. Still, the feral enthusiast Petro is partly right. The Novgorod myth did cast a spell: by the late 1990s, one in three members of the Novgorod intelligentsia had managed to obtain Western funding of one sort or another. And that circumstance, in Novgorod and around Russia, galvanized the Kremlin.

Officials with Kremlin access confirm that its denizens exude authentic pathos about a "fifth column." Putin and his retinue appear genuinely to believe that the West wants to make Russia a vassal, perhaps even break it apart. In the 1990s, this "threat" involved attempted IMF diktat and debt. Now it supposedly emanates from Western-financed NGOs.

Sure, many functionaries are proud that Russia is flexing its muscles again, regaining its "sovereignty."

But is Russia on the path to revival as a superpower? It has collapsed back to its size during the reign of Peter the Great, reversing centuries of imperialism, although imperial ambitions always die hard. Still, the gas cutoffs to Ukraine and Western Europe demonstrated that the "lords of oil and gas" have a knack, as one Kremlin adviser on Asian affairs told me, for "stepping on a rake." Step on a rake and you smack yourself in the forehead. That exercise-repeated over and over by Putin and his KGB cronies-strikes me as worth keeping in mind amid the dire warnings of the threat to Europe and (soon) Asia from energy dependence on Moscow. The Russian military, despite somewhat pumped-up budgets, is still unreformed, a shell. Gazprom, the successor to the Soviet Gas Ministry, remains a different kind of mess: a study in corporate misgovernance. Above all, the Kremlin's oil and gas imperialism (using market leverage to induce asset swaps) goes hand in hand with its lust for secretive, unchecked, unaccountable power-ultimately, the weakest kind of authority, lacking self-correcting mechanisms.

Talk of a new cold war is silly given that Russia, wallowing in nash-ism and nearly friendless, lacks an all-encompassing ideology with global resonance like communism. There is indeed a menace emanating from Moscow, but it is inwardly hazardous. It is the absence in Russia and most of Eurasia of effective formal checks on executive power-a hoary tradition broken by Gorbachev, in part accidentally, but restored in Yeltsin's "presidential" constitution of 1993. Putin filled out that charter's generous autocratic potential. But lo and behold, the document contains a two-term limit on the throne. Much speculation now surrounds the presumed stealth preparations for transcending this constitutional barrier against a third presidential run for Putin in 2008. Nobody expects a real election. But the lack of honor among high-placed thieves who are jostling over the spoils means that anything could happen-except a turnabout toward promoting human rights and equitable business practices.

When affordable substitutes for hydrocarbons are widely introduced, lasting political transformation, as opposed to "revolution," may finally descend upon Russia and Eurasia, as upon much of the Middle East. In the meantime, the Russian elites' internal political scrum continues, with the riven factions of Putin-promoted marketeers still clawing and biting his similarly rivalrous security types for market-oriented policies. Global valuations of Russian companies and of its GDP-which even many Russian officials will tell you is the basis for great power status today, including in former colonies-also exert some pressure for much-needed further reforms: banking, workable federalism, entitlements, education, infrastructure. None of these huge, wrenching undertakings is assured. But if done, and done semi-sensibly (perhaps with WTO accession or after 2008), such structural reforms could be as important in their own way as free and fair elections and free and fair media. More effective everyday governance would be very handy should Russia at some point turn toward democracy.

Democracy? Two Russias mold book after book: one, the Kremlin and the billionaires, supporting or screwing one another; and the other, an impoverished, infirm, criminally neglected populace. (In Russia's unaccountable political system, as Stephen Holmes has quipped, the oppressors have liberated themselves from the oppressed.) But there is a third aspect to "Putin's Russia." Untold numbers of Russians-consumers with money, not citizens with rights-are engaged in horizontal interactions across the country and international borders. Some 6.5 million Russians traveled abroad in 2004, about half of them to affordable Turkey, Egypt, and China. Domestic sales of private cars zoomed over $20 billion in 2005, and the forecast for 2006 is further vertiginous growth-just ask the multi-national producers in Russia, from Ford to Toyota, operating or opening new plants. Russia's explosion in private housing has spread well beyond the capitals, and mortgage mechanisms are just now becoming available. According to Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the population's income in 2005 increased nearly 10 percent over the rate of inflation-a hefty bulge in real terms, which he forecast would be repeated in 2006. Kudrin also predicted that in 2007 Russia's GDP would finally attain the level of 1990, right before the great depression and hyperinflation of the Soviet collapse.

What about Russian society, then, at least its dynamic elements? Estimates of the size of Russia's middle class-like India's or China's-are all over the map. Some 80 percent of Russians surveyed invariably say they are middle class. Probably 20 percent warrant such status. But anyone interested in broad social trends other than alcoholism-say, property ownership, investment, credit, and savings; educational opportunities and costs; consumer tastes; civic involvement or avoidance-cannot just pick up a book. One has to search out the scientific polls amid the clutter, purchase the uneven subscription-only research produced by investment houses, or read back from the advertising on Russian television. (The stations that cannot show the real war in Chechnya or criticize the Kremlin show a lot for and about society.) In January, the newspaper Izvestia published an overview of Russia's middle class based on an analysis by the Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. (I spoke independently with the scholars at the Institute.) Besides disposable incomes and computer saturation, members of the middle class are distinguished by employment in non-manual labor, higher education, enrollment in ongoing educational courses, knowledge of a foreign language, and a striving to be selfreliant. So far, so promising.

But an accompanying chart in the article on Russia's middle class indicated that nearly half work in the "state sector." One-third work in the "private sector" or at "privatized enterprises." Less than one-fifth work for themselves or foreign firms. To put the matter another way, Russia's middle class chiefly comprises functionaries in the bureaucracy and in large state or private corporations, rather than small and medium business owners-that is, they are partly dependent, not independent, people. Compared to small business-still minuscule, despite the easing of licensing requirements in 2001 and 2002-more of Russia's middle class, fully 15 percent, work in the military, security organs, interior ministry, and state prosecutor's office. Many of these people are owned by, or are owners of, big business. Small wonder that much has been made of the fact that Russia's movers, shakers, and hostage takers generally express a preference for the state to retain control over the economy's "commanding heights."

What should not be overlooked, however, is that these same people mostly do not favor an end to the market. Increasingly, Russian commentators have come to view them, Russia's "middle class," as Putin's social base, while Baker and Glasser remark of Moscow's middle class that "politics seemed increasingly beside the point." This amounts to two different ways of saying much the same thing. Simply put, Russians are acutely aware of the clumsy domination of the executive branch, an absurdity lamented (albeit quietly) even by many people working inside the hydra, yet accepted as inescapable-for now.

VI.

Back in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union began tanking and nincompoop American social scientists were analyzing the "convergence" between the Soviets and the West into "industrial society," China was a dirt-poor, illiterate peasant country bleeding from Mao's thirty million-victim "cultural revolution." Over the next quarter-century, China's economy boomed some 9 percent per year. It just revised its 2004 GDP from $1.65 trillion to almost $2 trillion-a retrospective bonus equivalent to an economy the size of Indonesia's, or almost half of Russia's. Many Kremlin principals, perhaps including Putin, are enamored of the "China model." But they labor under a common misapprehension, exaggerating the role in China's dynamism of the country's central autocratic state, as opposed to regions competing for private investment, entrepreneurs, peasant migrants to the cities, and foreign owners. Russia's political sinophiles also overlook China's deep economic entanglement with the United States. In the 1990s, compared with Russia, China opened itself and its economy less, but it doggedly pursued global economic integration with America, which its rulers view as the indispensable path of advancement, not as surrender. Russia's equally grandiose aspirations have entailed a refusal of the option (to the extent that it has been on offer) of rising on American coattails.

Perhaps for this reason, among others, American media coverage of authoritarian Russia remains preoccupied with state corruption and mass poverty, rather than the expanding middle class and economic growth, while American coverage of authoritarian China is obsessed with the expanding middle class and economic growth, rather than state corruption and mass poverty. Baker and Glasser, who resided and worked in the Post's long-held space in a Stalin-style massif on Kutuzov Street, near where Brezhnev and Andropov lived, seem confounded by the banal physical persistence of the Soviet era in Moscow. But they note that cherished cultural landmarks are being ripped down, faзades and all. They are bowled over by the boomtown quality of today's Moscow. It is not just the skyrocketing prices in intimate neighborhoods such as the Ostozhenka on the Moscow River-once bestowed by Ivan the Terrible on his dreaded oprichniki, later the haunt of Romanov-era aristocrats and merchants. Baker and Glasser also observe that when Putin took office, Moscow had two million square feet of mall space, while five years later it had twenty-one million. They could have added that Moscow is now the world's second-largest construction site, after Shanghai.

In Vilnius a few weeks ago, Dick Cheney ripped into Russia in the run-up to the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg scheduled for this coming July. The vice president launched the equivalent of a confrontational spy plane across Russia's borders-remember the incident with China?-by admonishing the Kremlin for using its natural resources as "tools of intimidation and blackmail" and for the way that the Kremlin, "from religion to the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties," has "unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of [Russia's] people." Cheney is known to hold similar views on China, though on the latter he has publicly been more muted. Other critics, such as the former insider Andrei Illarionov, want to believe that Russia's and China's glaring institutional shortcomings and authoritarianism will at some point start punishing the regimes, not the freedom advocates. A lot of investors, though, are willing to go on betting big that China and Russia will continue to surge while flouting most of the ostensible rules for long-term growth. On one thing the critics and boosters agree: following this trajectory in the long run, we're all dead.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Devastating comment on an intrinsically devastated nation. This post just about sums it all up. Poor poor Russians - after all they have suffered over the decades, they deserve better than this. But will they ever get it?

La Russophobe said...

La Russophobe doesn't think so. But since the world's largest territory spontaneously bursting into flames is a rather horrifying prospect, she's still in there swinging until the final strike is called. ;)