Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute is surely one of the most brilliant and insightful Russia scholars working today. His most recent column in the Washington Post explains in horrifying detail how Vladimir Putin, a proud KGB spy, is slowly taking his country back to the dark days of Soviet failure. In devastatingly few words, Aron exposes the fundamentally fraudulent character of what now can only be properly called a neo-Soviet state (as we have been doing for more than two years now, well ahead of the curve -- it's gratifying to see the mainstream world finally catching up with us).
Vladimir Putin's appointment this spring as prime minister of the symbolic "union" of Russia and Belarus was yet another example of the troubling similarities between today's Russia and the other most stable and prosperous Russian regime of the past 80 years: Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union in the 1970s. That economy, too, was fueled by then-record oil prices. And while there are clear differences between the two Russias, if these tendencies go unchecked, the increasingly authoritarian and economically statist country may soon face crises of the kind that became apparent under Brezhnev and contributed to the Soviet Union's demise.
The most disturbing of these propensities include:
- The national alcoholic binge. In the 1970s, Soviets annually consumed eight liters of strong (40 to 80 percent proof) alcoholic beverages per person -- more than any other country. Between 1964 and 1980, male life expectancy fell from 67 to 62. Today, per capita consumption of vodka, which is four times cheaper in relation to the average salary than 30 years ago, has grown to 10 liters, according to official statistics (outside experts say it is higher). By contrast, the most recent data available from the World Health Organization show the corresponding U.S. figure is 2.57 liters. One in 10 Russian men is thought to be an alcoholic. Life expectancy for Russian men is less than 60.6 years, more than 15 years shorter than in the United States and European Union and below current levels in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
- Oil-for-food. This spring, Putin admitted that 70 percent of the food consumed in Russia's largest cities is imported, a situation he decried as "intolerable." This problem, too, first surfaced in the 1970s, when grain imports were so high that by the end of the decade they supplied the flour for every third loaf of bread. When oil prices collapsed, Russia was forced to spend gold reserves and seek loans -- and eventually found itself without grain or gold. After agricultural land was denationalized in the early 1990s, food became available almost immediately -- for the first time in almost 70 years it could be had without hours-long lines and rationing coupons. Russia started to export grain. Yet agricultural land was never legally privatized, and rules for long-term leasing have been left to local authorities.
The ruble's steady appreciation because of huge petro-dollar inflows further depresses the domestic food industry. Should Russia allow the ruble to float, at least partially, to help curb inflation, it would become even more expensive, encouraging demand for better-quality and, often cheaper, imported food.
Putin's remedies have the same flavor as Brezhnev's: Throw billions in subsidized credits and grants at the problem instead of strengthening property rights and making it easier for independent producers to compete.
- One-party rule. With its opposition marginalized and demoralized, and election results rigged, United Russia has emerged as the "ruling party," the term that used be reserved for the Soviet Communist Party. "Today we are the party responsible for the government," a top United Russia functionary told a Russian newspaper this year, "since our leader [Putin, the party's chairman] is the chairman of the government." Those who argue, rightly, that United Russia membership is only a ticket for ambitious apparatchiks to punch should remember that there was precious little ideological fervor and much cynicism in the 1970s as well. Lack of sincerity then did nothing to ameliorate the absence of corrective societal feedback and, with it, the inability to reverse dead-end policies that led to the crisis.
- A new oligarchy. Brezhnev drew some of his loudest cheers in his six-hour "reports" to party congresses when he declared "respect for the cadres." Delivering his presidential valediction this spring, Putin's longest applause came when he cited "stability" as his crowning achievement.
The 1970s made clear what the belief in official infallibility and omnipotence, utter disregard for public opinion, ossification, and pandemic corruption could lead to. Most of all, the experience of Brezhnev's Russia confirms that authoritarian "stabilization" is a curious political commodity. Its benefits are instantly apparent but its price is revealed only gradually -- and may be devastatingly high. As he moves forward, President Dmitry Medvedev would do well to remember the lessons from Russia's other most stable regime.
A commenter wrote: "It's a shame. I like Russians. They deserve better, but they have gotten what they asked for."