Leon Aron has a great article in Foreign Policy on rising Russian discontent with the Putin model of governance.
Looking around Russia now, Putin’s new critics see only the ruins of unfulfilled promises and wasted wealth. Like Nemtsov and Milov, they rue the missed opportunity for a modern and transparent state and for a diversified, entrepreneur-driven economy, the foundation for which could have been laid under the more favorable market conditions of the early 2000s. “In all the years of the fantastic, unearned money, which gushed from the oil pipe as if from a broken bathroom spigot, we did not move a finger to diversify our economy,” Nikolai Svanidze, professor of the Moscow University for the Humanities and a member of the Public Chamber, the Kremlin’s top advisory body, wrote in March in the key opposition Web journal, Ezhednevnyi zhurnal. Simply put, Svanidze added, Russia has not learned how to make anything that would enjoy demand in the global market: “As in the 10th century, we still cannot offer the world anything that is not gifted to us by Mother Nature: no electronics, no clothes, no food, or cars, or medications, not even children’s toys.” Instead of emerging as a world economic power, Svanidze concluded, Russia appears to be headed in the direction of becoming “a cheap Chinese gas station.”
This anxiety and sense of failure does seem widespread among the Russian intelligentsia. If you look up “stability of autocracy” on Google Scholar, for instance, you’ll find a lot of great papers by Russian political scientists, like this one on how the resource curse enables dictators to remain in power by using corruption to buy off potential opposition. But, Aron says, the collapse of oil revenues and the economic crisis it provoked in Russia last year showed that a system of total corruption and impunity mitigated by buy-offs of potential opposition is unsustainable. There are two options for the regime: “abandon the current, softer authoritarianism, which generally favors bribery and intimidation over jailing and killing, and replace it with a full-bore, hard dictatorship; or radically expand its political base by opening a dialogue with the opposition, liberalizing politics, and reducing the state’s control of the economy.”
Here’s the thing: from the outside, it appears extremely unlikely that the latter option could happen. As Aron notes, “The allure of a reactionary stabilization is strengthened by the fact that many key components of such a regime have been introduced in the past eight years and are by now well-entrenched.” In contrast, it’s hard to imagine what significant, powerful, wealthy players would fight for a re-liberalization of Russia’s political and economic systems.
The Soviet system collapsed in 1991 in large measure because the Communist economy meant that economic failures redounded upon the political leadership and the political system. That was the extreme weakness of the pure Communist economy, and it generated the support for liberalization (perhaps never a popular majority support, even then) that drove the halting, often botched reforms of the Yeltsin era. The Russian economy today is once again effectively controlled by people who are inside the state structure, but it’s officially capitalist and not doctrinally invested in a theory of total state economic control. That makes it hard to identify economic failure with political failure in the tight way it was under Communism. The message that drove the liberalization of the ’90s was simple and clear: end state ownership of the means of production. Sell the SOE’s off; create a private business class. It was, as it turned out, a flawed formula, but it was a clear one that led to clear political action. The message today, a message of ending corruption, instituting the rule of law, creating transparency, etc., is much harder to encapsulate and has a much vaguer constituency. It’s hard to see how it can win a struggle against entrenched powers whose interest in continuing corruption and Kremlin centralization is clear and strong.
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