Russian revolutions, past and future

By Chrystia Freeland
December 1, 2011

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.

7 comments

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You can’t logically compare Russia and Putin to Egypt(Mubarak), Libya(Ghaddafi), etc. These were small-time rogues compared to Russia and Putin. Russia’s growing energy monopoly isn’t going to be slowed, curtailed or rolled back anytime soon.

And rather than make the spending mistakes of the former Soviet Union, in which military spending was massively increased across the board in an arms race with the U.S. that plunged the Empire into financial/economic ruin, Putin is approaching things much, much smarter.

He’s precisely targeting military spending, developing and buying relatively inexpensive weapons that pose a truly potent challenge to America’s large, unwieldy and terribly high-tech-reliant weapons systems. In the inevitable conflict between the U.S./NATO and Russia-China, the West is going to suffer a very costly defeat, since the inevitable conflict will be fought over, and within, the energy resource-rich regions close to Russia, but half a world away from America. This fact makes America fundamentally vulnerable because its crucial supply lines supporting such a conflict will be a ‘sitting duck’ for new, supersonic and ballistic Russian and Chinese weapons.

Despite the alarm of a growing number of Russians with regard to Putinism, Russian nationalism and fears over Western intentions toward Russia will be Putin’s trump card. After all, the actions of the U.S. and NATO with regard to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and soon Syria and Iran only play into the Putinists hands – ‘see – the U.S. and NATO are desirous of subjugating us and cannot be trusted’.

Posted by NukerDoggie | Report as abusive

Chrystia:

Thank you for illuminating the current situation in Russia. Good work – I appreciate your insights.

In my opinion, the more that wealth becomes concentrated in a small number of hands in a country, the more inherently unstable that country becomes. Your article goes directly to that point.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

Spot on. But hope is not a strategy, as Obama has so vividly shown Americans.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

at least with Putin comes the stability …

Posted by waccos | Report as abusive

Since you bring it up, the parallels between Russia and the US are quite striking.

Instead of a democracy, the US has a plutocracy (hardwired into the US Constitution since its inception through the Electoral College, which ensures only the wealthy vote counts towards electing a President).

And what might have been inconceivable on a few years ago, the US is drifting towards an autocracy — after the wealthy run out of patience with the 99% and install one of their own class in power forever (for some “plausible” reason like ensuring “domestic tranquility” as demonstrations against the government escalate as US economic conditions deteriorate.

Under the present circumstances, it would be a relatively easy transition from a President to a “Czar,” and thus the transition would be complete.

Of course, we would need to reduce the middle class down to the level of the Russian peasants, as well as gulags to suppress dissension.

So, how does this relate to your provocative title?

Well, perhaps the US should study “Russian revolutions, past and future” since the Russians have already been down the same path as the US is heading, and can provide the solution on how to prevent that disaster for ourselves. Perhaps that might make provide a more suitable article than this pathetic propaganda.

I know from previous experience that Reuters will not post this comment, because my comments are rarely PC, so they never “see the light of day”.

By seeming to offer a forum to comment on articles they write, but only allowing PC replies to be published, what they are doing is denying me my right to free speech under the US Constitution.

And that is how it all starts, by suppression of dissension.

Reuters is certainly doing their part to accomplish that goal.

CPA/MBA

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Mrs Freeland’s article is thin on argumentation, and very full of bias against a politicial elected more than one times by more than 50% of his people.

Posted by DimitrisTz | Report as abusive

Great article – it seems that in Russia you do not get voted to or buy power, you simply take it – so did Putin, following so many dictators before him based on all kinds of silly ideologies. I agree that Putinism could still last very long as he does not show yet the typical signs of obvious degeneration thru power and lack of challengers. He did not even start to promote his children – wait and see. Now even if the Russians did go for yet another major change, whenever, – what type of new leadership will this be in a country which was ruled by dictators and emperors since it started and the only parts of middle class society being typically cronies of such..this is a very hopeless situation. I do not believe Russia will have a democracy in this century, but will again go for sort of a new strong leader, post Putin. As completely weird it may sound, Putin was best choice for Russia in the past 100 years in comparison.

Posted by European1 | Report as abusive