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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Shattering the Russian Illusion

Deutsche Welle shatters the illusion of Russian power that a certain malignant little troll is attempting to foist upon the world:

Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia may well leave much to be desired in terms of democracy. But experts on the country say there's little need to fear the Kremlin's long-term plans.

The poll on Dec. 2 is being viewed as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's popularity. With Putin's future plans unclear and the Kremlin recently striking an aggressive international posture, particularly toward the United States, many pundits have speculated that Russia might be bidding to re-establish itself as a global superpower. But Russia's military might today doesn't remotely compare to the power wielded by the Soviet Union. German experts on Russia said there's little reason to worry about a return to the Cold-War-era stand-off between Russia and the West.


"Superpower is the wrong word," said Hans-Henning Schröder, a professor of eastern European history and politics at the University of Bremen. "Big power would be more accurate. The US is in another dimension entirely, and that's clear to the Russian leadership under Putin as well. But Russia would like to reach the level of influence of, say, Germany or Great Britain." Christoph Zürcher, professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin, agreed that it did not make sense to put Russia and the US in the same league. "Russia is trying to show presence on the international stage, but it's hard to take the idea of bipolarity between Russia and the US very seriously," he said. "It would be nice if there were a multi-polar counterweight to American influence in the world. But that's not what Russia stands for right now. They're pursing national interests."


Energy plays limited role


Russia's vast natural resources, particularly natural gas and oil, will give the country increased leverage in coming years. But the experts don't think Europe is necessarily overly dependent on Russian energy. "The role of energy is foreign relations is over-dramatized," said Alexander Rahr, the director of the Russian-Eurasia Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Germany only gets 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia; France only 10 percent. The lone nations who are truly dependent are Russia's direct neighbors." Schröder agreed that countries such as Georgia, the Baltic republics and Poland could feel pressure from Russia, which in turn could create a problem for the EU. But "Russia has roughly the same economic power as Italy so it's actually a fairly small country in this respect, and countries like Germany don't need to worry too much about possible developments," he added.


Lack of middle class is biggest problem


Russia is getting richer and currently boasts annual growth rates of up to 7 percent. But the experts disagreed as to how strong the Russian economy really is -- and how much it may need to diversify from energy production. "Russia can assume it won't be suffering any financial crises in the next 10 years, especially as the energy needs of countries like China are also sure to rise," Rahr said. "The biggest problem is the destruction of the middle-class -- that was a mistake that needs correcting."


Shakespearean drama?


There is complete consensus that Sunday's election is about Putin -- and whether he can retain significant power despite constitutional restrictions. But the experts stressed that that issue -- at least in the short term -- has more to do with Putin's relationship with Russia, and vice versa, and less with Putin or Russia's plans vis-a-vis the world. "Russia has become arrogant enough to flout international decorum, for instance, by refusing to allow international monitoring," Zürcher said. "That's not so terrible for the rest of the world. What's terrible is that Russia is on its way to becoming an unpleasant, semi-authoritarian system."


"The problem is that all the power is concentrated in the hands of the president, and when he gives up this power and passes it on to his successor, he's in effect at his successor's mercy," Schröder said. "What Putin is doing is trying to position himself so that he's unassailable."


"It's almost like a Shakespearean drama," Rahr said. "A historic figure who is still very popular has to go because of the constitution, but the system requires a strong leader at the top. That's also thrown the state into an internal dilemma."




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