Russian revolutions, past and future
London’s legal battle between Boris Berezovksy and Roman Abramovich is the best show in town. Who could resist a fight between two Russian oligarchs that includes open discussion of multi-million dollar bribes and a spat about whose lifestyle is more “exuberant?”
But for Russians the court case has been rivetting for more than its juicy revelations about lives of the rich and famous. That’s because it hinges on the original sin of the post-Soviet era — the loans-for-shares privatisation in which vast stakes in the country’s natural resources were sold to a small group of men at fire-sale prices in exchange for their political support of Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 election.
This was the windfall which created the oligarchs, and an enduring legacy of striking inequality — the 101 Russians on the 2011 Forbes billionaires list have a collective wealth equal to 29 percent of the country’s GDP. The gulf between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is center-stage in America today — but this country’s billionaires’ combined booty is equal to just 10 percent of the nation’s GDP.
Loans-for-shares has poisoned Russian politics, too. The glaring injustice of that sale discredited Russia’s liberal reformers and opened the Kremlin door for Vladimir Putin. Once he got there, public anger at loans-for-shares helped legitimize his crackdown on the independent media — which was owned by oligarchs — on oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and eventually on civil society overall.
Putin’s apologists argued that he was simply re-asserting the rule of law in a country that risked being paralyzed by its corrupt and untameable oligarchs. But this fall, when he announced his intention to run in the presidential elections next March, Putin unambiguously revealed he has been engaged in a very different project — creating a neo-patrimonial regime with himself as the sole and perhaps life-long ruler.
Instead of a plutocracy, Russia has an autocracy — but one without even the religious and dynastic legitimacy of the Imperial family, or the ideological and institutional legitimacy of the CPSU. The best parallel is with the l’etat c’est moi strongmen who are being overthrown in the Middle East.
What is most chilling about Putinism is that Vladimir Vladimirovich has figured out something that has eluded previous Russian dictators — that soft authoritarianism can be more effective than the more brutal sort. Instead of sending dissidents to Siberia, Putin lets them move to London, New York or Silicon Valley.
History suggests that this sort of patrimonial regime can be surprising enduring, especially if the man at its heart has oil revenues with which to pay off his cronies and his hoi polloi. But they are not eternal — witness Mubarak, Ben Ali and Ghaddafi. Russians summoned the national will to throw off one dictatorship twenty years ago this month; I’m hopeful they will be able to do it again, and when they do I hope they will heed the lessons of their latest, flawed revolution.
This initially appeared on the BBC World Service’s “Business Daily” program.