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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bayer on the Neo-Soviet Freak Show

Alexei Bayer on the neo-Soviet freak show, from the Moscow Times:

Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev are riding in a train when the engine suddenly stalls. Stalin has the engineer shot. The train doesn't move. Khrushchev posthumously rehabilitates the engineer, but the train still doesn't move. Brezhnev then draws the curtains and says: "Good. We're moving."

This Soviet-era joke reveals the enduring surrealism of Russian society. You can easily imagine everyone on the train falling in with the charade, checking the schedule to see when the next station is due, commenting on the passing scenery and praising the special nature of Soviet motion.

When I was growing up, the founder of the Soviet state was presented to us as Grandpa Lenin -- a kind, gentle and all-knowing sage. Yet, Lenin was just 47 years old when he seized power in November 1917 and died before his 54th birthday.

Compare him to another Vladimir -- Putin -- who, curiously enough, became Russian president at the same age. When Putin turned 55 in October, the main theme of the celebrations was his image as a man of action. He seems proud of his muscular torso and, like Mussolini, has been known to bare it before the camera. None of that kind, gentle Grandpa-Putin stuff for the current president.

With prominent Russians -- ranging from State Duma deputies of various political hues to athletes and artists -- calling on Putin to stay in power, constitutionally or not, there is a good chance that hale and healthy Putin could rule Russia for the next three decades. This is certainly what his critics dread.

In fact, there is little reason to doubt that he will leave office in the same way as the overwhelming majority of his predecessors -- in a casket. There is no effective opposition to his one-man rule and no popular discontent capable of spilling onto the streets, a la Tbilisi or Kiev. Property and cash flows have been divvied up among the elites, who see Putin as guarantor of stability, continuity and the preservation of their property. He is protecting the elite from outsiders who would love to have a turn at the feeding trough. In addition, Putin is trying to prevent one overly greedy clique from grabbing too much wealth, thus protecting the elite from infighting among themselves.

In Russia, there can be plenty of continuity, drift and stagnation. A Stalin or a Brezhnev could rule forever. But what seems in short supply is certainty, and, like Khrushchev, any ruler may get the boot in a blink of an eye.

I have often wondered why so many prominent Russians have been willing to sing patently insincere, Soviet-style hosannas to Putin. In Stalin's times, you did so because you feared for your own life and for the safety of your loved ones. Even under Stalin's successors, expressions of loyalty could be forgiven because the party routinely stripped the unreliable of their positions, privileges and even livelihoods.

But not today. These are wealthy, self-assured people. They have large fortunes salted away abroad. Their children, almost without exception, have studied in the West and often live there. In a worst-case scenario, they too could emigrate and enjoy safe, comfortable lives. Nor are self-abasing public oaths of fealty de rigueur in Putin's Russia -- at least not yet. Still, they can't help themselves.

Putin might revel in these expressions of love and admiration. I hope for his sake he doesn't take them too seriously. This is Russia, after all. Tomorrow, without drawing a breath, the same chorus might shift their flattery to Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov or anyone else.

When Khrushchev fell, official adoration building up around him ended overnight. Instead, a dirty doggerel began making rounds: "What a nasty surprise / How could we have been so gullible / For a full decade we've been kissing a backside / But it apparently was the wrong one."

3 comments:

misha said...

I too am impressed with the deftness and acumen of Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the Great Depression in the USA, the GDP of the US fell by some 30%. But after the implosion of the USSR, when Russia embraced the free-market “shock therapy” program that was prescribed for Russia by western governments, Russia’s GDP fell by over 50%. Indeed it was only last year, in 2006, that Russia reached the level of GDP that it had in the last years of the USSR.

At the end of the Cold War, as in the last big war, the Great Patriotic War which Russia fought against the West, Russia once again suffered more than any nation. The quality of Russian life declined by every single measure from the levels achieved during Soviet times, so mush so that the situation in Russia could be described as a social, economic, cultural, educational and medical holocaust.

But that now almost feels a bit like ancient history, as it all occurred well before President Putin came to power in Holy Mother Russia. Now things are quite different. Now Russia has been growing at a rapid pace for years. Russia has been enjoying one of the highest rates of growth in the world, and much higher than the rate in the west. It is true that Russia has enjoyed some benefit from the recent record high world energy prices, but that by no means tells the whole story of President Putin’s success. Russia’s economic recovery is continuing in every sector, not only in the energy sector. In any case, the majority of the massive oil and gas revenues which have accrued to Russia were not foolishly spent, but President Putin has wisely established an “oil stabilization fund” which is money set aside for when energy prices might decline (if they ever do). Russia’s foreign currency reserves are now about $300 billion dollars. And now Russia has managed to repay almost all of its foreign debt (most of it Soviet-era debt that Russia alone assumed upon itself after the implosion of the USSR).

In the period immediately following the implosion of the USSR Russian society experienced one of the greatest collapses in history, in terms of the destruction to the material, social and cultural aspects of Russian life. During this period Russians had no reason to feel proud of Russia or its leadership. The drunken Yeltsin was ruling Russia on behalf of a handful of billionaire oligarchs who had managed to steal the wealth of the Russian people, the former state assets which the people had created through their toil. Meanwhile the welfare of the Russian people sunk to new lows.

During this time Russian security services, lead by the FSB had long been arguing to Yeltsin that the West and especially the United States were not placated by the end of the Warsaw Pact or the breakup of the Soviet Union, and that they still posed a very deadly existential threat to Russia. But this was a message Yeltsin preferred not to hear, believing instead that the West was friendly towards Russia. It took the savage 1999 NATO bombing attack against Serbia to finally rouse even the drunken Yeltsin from his stupor, and into belatedly acknowledging that the West was indeed a threat to Russia.

In eleven weeks the combined air forces from 13 NATO nations flew over 36,000 sorties and dropped over 23,000 bombs and missiles on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. These included 400 cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and highly toxic depleted uranium bombs. The bombing damaged or destroyed 144 major industrial plants including all Yugoslavia’s oil refineries, fuel storage facilities, car and motorcycle factories, pharmaceutical and fertilizer factories, rubber factories. The bombing of some of these released large quantities of dangerous chemicals into the environment, created an oil slick on the Danube 20 kilometers long, and put 600, 000 people out of work. Destroyed were several thousand homes, 33 clinics and hospitals, 340 schools, 55 road and rail bridges. The River Danube was blocked; some of the bridges were hundreds of miles from the scenes of the racial expulsions and were vital trade links to the rest of Europe. Also attacked were 12 railway lines, 5 civilian airports, 6 trunk roads, 10 TV and radio stations and 24 transmitters; power stations were put out of action; sewage treatment plants were damaged; water supplies were cut off. Five thousand civilians were injured; 1400 adult civilians were killed, 600 children were killed, 600 military and police personnel were killed. As a result of the murder, harassment, violence, and destruction of homes carried out by the returning Kosovo Albanians there are now about 150,000 further refugees (mainly Serbs and Roma) in Serbia who have fled from Kosovo.

Some people pointed out that the barbaric NATO attack on a small and comparatively defenseless nation was motivated by the diabolical and irrational hatred that the US Secretary of State Madeline Albright harbored for all Slavic people. Albright, who is Jewish, lived in Serbia as a little girl. God only knows what awful thing must have happened to her there to inspire her savage lust for revenge against the simple Slavic peoples who live in Yugoslavia. But regardless, no one could deny that it unjust and disproportionate for the USA and all 13 NATO countries to unleash such a brutal and barbaric attack against one small eastern European neighbor over a small civil war in one of its provinces.

Serbia is a traditional Slavic and Orthodox ally of Russia’s. It appears that President Yeltsin actually thought he could use his influence with Bill Clinton to avert the impending war. But the NATO attacks against a key Russian ally took place anyway, even over strenuous Russian objections and protests. It was at that point that President Yeltsin could no longer deny that the West’s intentions toward Russia and the Slavs were not peaceful and friendly. The West had no intention of taking Russian interests into account and Russia would have to protect its own interests. Yeltsin finally acknowledged that the barbarism that NATO was inflicting on Serbia today could well be inflicted against Russia tomorrow, unless drastic steps were taken to halt the slide of Russia’s security posture. At that point president Yeltsin not only belatedly started to listen to Russian security services, but shortly thereafter he actually appointed the head of the FSB, Vladimir Putin, as his Prime Minister.

Such was the beginning of Putin’s rise to power. Before Yeltsin left office he had nominated the very capable Putin as his heir apparent and Putin went on to easily win the election to President. I suppose if the drunkard Yeltsin did one good thing for Russia, and only one, it was bringing in the Russian Security Services, and President Vladimir Putin. And in the opinion of many Russians, this alone is enough to exonerate Yeltzen for whatever other evils may have taken place under his watch. Even today President Putin still remains wildly popular with the Russian people, enjoying the support of some 82 percent of likely voters. There are grass roots movements all across Russia demanding that the Russian constitution be amended to allow Putin to run for a 3rd term, if not to become president of Russia for life. President Putin has acknowledged the love and respect of the Russian people, but he has stated on several occasions that it is more important for him to respect the institutions of Russia’s infant democracy, first and foremost its constitution. But President Putin has assured the people that he intends to continue to take an active interest in the future of Russian politics in whatever role he will eventually assume. Long live President Putin!

Anonymous said...

One thing Putin and his fans seem to forget -- the high price of oil means that Russia also has to PAY a high price for oil. Russians are now paying more for gasoline than Americans if they can find it at all. That is driving inflation. When Russians start paying sky high prices for cabbage and potatoes they won't be singing hosannas to Putin, especially when they find out how much money he and his cronies have stolen. As for the "stabilization fund", it's only stable until Putin's pals figure out how to steal it and they will soon enough.

misha said...

Russia has an infant democracy, unlike say the US or Britain, which have centuries of stable democratic institutions. Russia has no democratic tradition and it must construct all these institutions from scratch.

However Russia has come a very long way since the Soviet times that this blog is so fond of remembering. The modern Russian Federation is about to undergo its 2nd peaceful transition of power. The first was the transition from President Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, after Yeltsin completed 2 successive elected terms. The next transition will take place in 2008, when Putin completes his 2nd term and then hands the presidency off to his elected successor. Therefore we can already see the beginning of democratic stability in Russia, and the start of a tradition involving peaceful democratic transition of power in the Russian Federation.

Russians from all walks of life admire and support President Putin for the good he’s done for Russia. President Putin consistently scores 70–80 percent public approval ratings in all poles. Many Russians want President Putin to continue in office so much that they’ve called for an amendment to the Russian constitution which would remove the two-term limit that is presently in place.

But Putin himself has said that he will not make any moves to amend Russia’s constitution and that he will hand power to whoever wins the next presidential election.

Speaking of term limits, they are not some fundamental or essential requirement for a democracy. Some democracies have term limits (such as the United States, which has them for the President, but not for members of Congress). Other countries do not have term limits, such as the UK and many others. Term limits are not a fundamental democratic “litmus test”. Indeed in places where term limits exist, the point has often been made that they tent to be somewhat anti-democratic, in that they prevent voters from freely choosing the person they want to lead them. But why shouldn’t the voters be able to choose whoever they want to lead them, and keep that person in office as long as they (voters) want?

But Putin said he will honor Russia’s term limits, and I am not arguing here that those term limits ought to be eliminated. However I would argue that whether a country has term limits or not has nothing to do with how “democratic” it is. Term limits are not an essential part of democracy, because if they were, then a good fraction of the world’s democracies (which lack term limits) would need to be judged illegitimate.

President Putin is thinking that the most important thing in Russia is stability of the state, the constitution, and the institutions of democracy. Therefore he has chosen to honor term limits that he easily could have removed. He should be applauded for that.

By the way Russia’s term limits are different from the term limits on the US President. In the US no person can be president for more than two terms. But Russia’s constitution only says that no person can be president for more than two consecutive terms. This means that Putin can run for president again, in 2012, as long as someone else occupies the office, the new term would not be consecutive with the old terms.

Some Russian legal scholars have opined that President Putin would be eligible to Run again after less than 4 years, if the current president resigned or became unable to discharge the duties of his office. For example, if Putin’s successor serves one year and then dies or resigns, Russia would need to hold a special election, because there is no office of Vice President to take over the presidency (as the US has). So Putin could run in any special election. Again a new term for Putin could not be viewed as “consecutive” with the old term, as long as someone else occupied the presidency, even for a day.

But so far this is just speculation, because so far President Putin has only said he will step down after his 2nd term, and he has not indicated that he even wants to seek the Russian Presidency again.

President Putin has said is that he intends to stay active in Russian political life, even after he leaves the presidency. That should surprise no one, as the leaders of most of the world’s democracies don’t simply dry up and blow away when they leave office. They tend to stay active in politics. Vladimir Putin is no different; he is under no legal, moral or constitutional obligation to leave politics entirely, and legally he can still serve in government in any capacity except in the capacity of president, and that restriction is only temporary.

A lot of people don’t like President Putin and they would like to see him retire from politics. I understand this. People are entitled to their opinions. But it is also rather beside the point. In Democracies it is majorities that make the laws and elect the leaders, not small minorities that think they possess a monopoly on the truth. The fact is that Russia’s voters love and admire President Putin. Putin is still not an old man, and he is in peak physical and mental shape. Putin’s extreme self-discipline is probably a legacy of his years of training in Russia’s national security services.

Putin has announced that after he leaves office he will lead the United Russia party. This will guaranty him a seat in the Russian Duma. Do the Russian people want Putin in the Duma? No, by large majorities they apparently want Putin to stay right where he is. But President Putin has already said that respect for the Russian constitution, and the creation of stable institutions of democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power, is more important for Russia than his own personal political ambitions.

We can see that President Putin has successfully centralized a lot of power into the office of the President. Putin claimed this strong centralized power was necessary to put Russia’s house back in order, after the horrible situation in Russia that resulted from the fall of the USSR in 1991. Putin has also had to restrict certain elements of democracy in the interests of national security. For example, foreign intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and British MI-6 have active programs to infiltrate and undermine Russia’s political parties. These intelligence agencies provide extensive funding and staffing for so-called Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). These NGOs are ostensibly just western-based groups that are concerned about “human rights” or ‘democracy” or whatever their particular cause is. They can exist in the space that opens up for them in a democracy. However they exploit this democratic openness to further the agenda’s of their home intelligence agencies. These foreign intelligence agencies to not only work in and through foreign NGOs, but they have also colluded with members of the Russian “oligarchy”, whose political influence in Russia has been vastly reduced since President Putin came to power. The oligarchs first got control over billions of dollars worth of the most prize assets of the former Soviet state (such as petroleum and mineral extraction). Often they got this control over mere pennies on the dollar, and in some cases they got these assets by simple theft and fraud. Yes, such things were possible in Russia, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion. Once they got their hands on such incredible wealth, they naturally then turned their attention to using their newfound (and ill-gotten) wealth to try to control the levers of political power, the Russian state itself. To this end many of the oligarchs purchased radio and television stations as well as newspapers. They wanted this control over the mass media in order to control the news and information that the Russian people could obtain, and to promote for their own political and economic interests.

This was the state of affairs when Vladimir Putin was elected president of the Russian Federation for the first time in March of 2000. Russia was facing a critical situation. On one hand the infant institutions of Russia’s new democracy were weak and fragile, as Russia was still trying to gain its footing as the newest democracy in the world. But on the other hand the weak and disorganized Russian state was facing a determined threat from very well established entities both from abroad and from home-grown elements, often acting in collusion with one another. Russia’s weakness did not soften the wrath of those who mean her harm. Rather it only encouraged them all the more, as they came so close that they could almost see victory over Russia and almost taste her blood.

President Putin has brought firm state control back to the center, to Moscow and to a strong and well-organized state. Under President Putin’s two terms Russia first stopped and then reversed her slide into economic ruin. In 2006, after many years of strong economic growth, the Russian Federation achieved the same GDP that it had during the last years of the USSR. The Russian economy continues to grow at rates well above the average for the West. Putin has broken the power of the oligarchs over the Russian state. Many of them have been investigated and as a result have fled the country, taking exile in the countries of their western backers. Though they still mutter threats that they one day will return to power in Russia to menace her people yet again. But such an outcome is not likely to happen while the elements of Russian national security’s apparatus have their current place in the state.

President Putin has placed appropriate restrictions on the operation of foreign-based NGOs and on the organs of the mass media, to prevent those organs from being dominated and taken over by Russia’s well financed enemies in the west. Unfortunately providing such strong level of security for Russia has sometimes entailed actions that are less than ideal, when judged from a pure “democracy” standpoint. As regrettable as that may be, Russia’s security is the first priority for the Russian state and it will remain so.

The institutions of democracy will continue to develop in Russia, and they will develop as fast as is possible. But Russia’s powerful and well financed enemies work tirelessly to subvert and undermine Russia’s newborn democratic institutions, for the purpose of undermining her state and her independence. Regrettably it seems some level of control and management will be needed for the foreseeable future.