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The Putin Years
“The conventional story about Russia has been one of power reclaimed after the fall to chaos during the 1990s. Oil, gas and autocracy have restored it to the ranks of world powers. Some of the more hyperbolic commentary has gone so far to say that, along with China, Moscow has created an entirely new model to challenge western liberalism.
“Yet what most strikes me about Russia is its isolation. For all its resurgent hydrocarbon revenues and its considerable, albeit residual, military power, Moscow is essentially friendless. As for a superior system of capitalism, when was the last time you heard an international politician of any consequence hold up Russia as their chosen paradigm?....
“I was reminded of this isolation the other day when Vladimir Putin stepped out for what has become a familiar August ritual. The Russian prime minister, stripped to the waist and bestride a horse, posed for the camera in a studied show of summer machismo. Russians were reassured that they have a strong man at the helm; the world was reminded it had better not mess with Mr. Putin.
“That was the theory anyway. To my mind, these vainglorious photo-shoots are more a measure of weakness. Sad really – a middle-aged man desperate to show the world he still has his physique. The Russian prime minister would do better to buy himself a sports car. More seriously, Mr. Putin’s apparent compulsion to flaunt his torso offers an unfortunate metaphor for Russia itself: a great, but waning power deluding itself that a show of muscle is the way to cling on to past glory….
“Barack Obama’s administration seems to have understood the importance of what the political scientists call ‘normative’ power. States are strong when others want to imitate them. For some that means an admiration for U.S. democratic values, for others enthusiasm for America’s cultural and economic vibrancy.
“Travel to Beijing and you will hear high-ranking Chinese policymakers speak in awe of the U.S. higher education system and of its economy’s capacity for technological innovation. Much as Mr. Putin would like to pretend otherwise, Russia scarcely merits even a passing mention in such conversations. Beijing considers it has little, if anything, to learn from Moscow.
“China sees its neighbor as a declining power. Temporarily re-energized, of course, by a surge in oil and gas revenues and by Mr. Putin’s nationalism; but for all that a state that is squandering its petro-bounty and one in which almost every medium-to-long term indicator points in the direction of decay….
“Moscow will discover eventually the limitations of its capacity to obstruct. It is starving itself of foreign technology and investment. Making life difficult for the west is not the same as shaping a different international landscape. Even those who now pay notional fealty to Moscow are hedging their bets with China or the west.
“Mr. Putin may not care. Perhaps the braggadocio that drives him to pull on military fatigues and take off his shirt for the camera tells him also that all is well as long as the world shows Russia respect. In that case, Russian power will wither as surely as will Mr. Putin’s physique.”
“On Aug. 9, 1999, then-President Boris Yeltsin, who at that point was physically exhausted, weak and easily manipulated, made what was probably the greatest mistake of his political career: He named a new government led by the little-known Vladimir Putin.
“More important, Yeltsin said he would like to see Putin as his successor after the March 2000 presidential election. Shortly after Putin took office as president in May 2000, he wasted little time rolling back virtually all of the political reforms that Yeltsin had worked so hard to achieve throughout his political career….
“To his ‘credit,’ Putin has built a powerful personality cult around himself thanks in large part to the state-controlled television that endlessly portrays him in a favorable light under all circumstances….
“But behind that glamorous television image, high popularity ratings and personality cult stands a deplorable track record. During Putin’s years in power, the country lost a complete decade. Russia missed a golden opportunity to use an extended period of high oil prices to modernize the country both politically and economically. Now as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Russia remains mired in the past century. The country’s economy, including its federal budget, continues to be over-dependent on revenue from oil and other raw materials exports. Eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it still lacks a modern communications infrastructure. In addition, there is an appalling shortage of high-quality roads – including the so-called highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg – as well as modern train stations and airports.
“In reality, the Russian economy began to grow rapidly before Putin’s rise, when the price of oil was about $15 per barrel. This growth started in earnest in 1999, after the ruble was devaluated following the 1998 default. But in the thick of Putin’s presidency, when oil prices approached $100 per barrel, exceeding even the boldest forecasts, the rate of economic growth year on year actually began to slow. Meanwhile, economic growth in similarly oil-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan during the same period was two to three times higher.
“Putin dedicated practically all of his early years as president to the war in Chechnya, the struggle with a few obstreperous and overly ambitious oligarchs, construction of his power vertical, the placement of loyal insiders in key government posts and instituting governmental control over the country’s largest media outlets.
“Economic reforms that included the creation of the stabilization fund, the adoption of a new Land Code and new labor laws as well as the reform of natural monopolies were all begun under now-disgraced former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. After his ouster, the reforms ground to a halt and a new course was set toward building Putin’s state capitalism.
“In domestic politics, Putin turned away from democratic procedures in favor of authoritarianism. Year after year, Russia found itself in the bottom of the global rankings as one of the most corrupt and least democratic countries.
“The second Chechen war, from which Putin began his reign, has become a de facto defeat for Russia. The republic has been transformed into President Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal fiefdom and enjoys an independence that (the first two Chechen presidents) could only dream of. Today, Chechnya lives according to its own underwritten laws, while Russia contributes to the charade with endless cash infusions from the federal budget.
“The result of Putin’s foreign policy for the past 10 years looks just as depressing. Moscow’s attempts to wield its ‘energy weapon’ in relations with the West has only forced the European Union to reform its own gas marked by looking for alternative energy supplies….
“Any hope for a reset in U.S.-Russian relations as Moscow envisioned it – that is, Russia helps the United States with the war in Afghanistan in exchange for the United States giving up its battle to extend NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia – has not panned out. The recent visits to Kiev and Tbilisi by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made it very clear that Washington is not willing to turn its back on those two countries.
“It is difficult to name a single country with which Russia has experienced improved relations over the last 10 years. Even Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, traditionally Moscow’s closest ally, has begun turning away from Russia and toward the West.
“With the economic crisis gaining steam, the Kremlin has just two options: It can either tighten the screws even further, or it can gradually begin to liberalize from the top down. It would be nice to believe the authorities would choose the second path. Regrettably, Russian history has shown that every time the country’s leaders were placed in this situation, they have always opted to tighten the screws, despite the fact that the situation always worsened as a result.
“And now, when the possibility of a new war with Georgia hanging in the air, it reminds me of Russia’s ‘quick and easily winnable war’ with Japan from 1904-05. Tsar Nicholas II started the war under the slogan that it would save Russia from revolution. But after Russia’s embarrassing defeat in the war, revolution is exactly what it got – both in 1905 and 1917.”