By Paul Goble
Although this has been sometimes obscured by high oil and gas prices, the policies Vladimir Putin has carried out over the last decade “are contributing to an economic and political trend which repeats that which led to the demise of the Soviet Union,” according to a leading Moscow commentator.
Writing in “Novaya gazeta,” Georgy Satarov, the head of the INDEM Foundation, argues that once these trends and the dangers they present are recognized by Russian society “disappointment with Putin will be much deeper and more severe than the [currently widespread] disappointment in Gorbachev or Yeltsin (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2011/022/12.html).
Anyone who compiles a balance sheet on Russia today will be disturbed, Satarov says. On the positive side “is nothing except high prices for oil and gas.” But on the negative is widespread corruption, economic and political degradation, a power afraid of its own people, cynicism, hypocrisy and outright lying about the situation in the country.
Indeed, the Moscow analyst continues, “the threats to the present are competing with the threats to the future.”
Some commentators, Satarov notes, say Russia faces a “Weimar scenario.” But others – and they are becoming more numerous, he suggests, have decided that Russia is moving toward disintegration, largely because the country’s leadership “over the last decade has promoted the economic and political trend which repeats that which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to Satarov, “the main question” is whether Russians are dealing with “the irreversible agony of Russian civilization which is preparing to leave the historical stage or with an illness that allows for the possibility of a cure.”
Russia as an empire has faced and survived challenges to its existence before. The Russian Empire was the only one to survive World War I, he continues, albeit in a very different form under the Bolsheviks who put off its further decline for 70 years. But while it was seriously reduced in size by the events of 1991, Satarov notes, it still faces serious problems in this regard.
An important question is whether the collapse of empire will lead to the destruction of the national statehood of the metropolitan country. For many non-contiguous empires, the answer, Satarov says, is clearly not. For empires with contiguous colonies, however, the record is far more mixed.
After the collapse of the USSR, Satarov points out, “the territory of Russia declined by a third, and within the Russian Federation remains, with one exception only those territorial units which wanted to remain.” As a result, he argues, “Russia in fact ceased to be an empire.”
That conclusion, he continues, is justified because, thanks to the policies of Boris Yeltsin and his team in the 1990s, “after the introduction of elections of regional leaders the most important imperial characteristic disappeared: the loyalty of territorial leaders exchanged for the right to rule.” Russia became a federation, “weak but a federation” with a chance to survive.
But “after 1000, power in the country step by step began to be seized” by people who did not understand either the nature of the underlying challenges and instead sought to promote their personal power and wealth. “As a result, [Russians] have obtained an explosive mix: an unprecedentedly corrupt and uniquely ineffective power in imperial dress.”
If one consider the nature of this mixture, Satarov says, one sees that “the ruling clique is becoming ever richer, the list of its crimes ever broader, and the fear of losing power ever greater, but at the same time, its effectiveness in carrying out its public functions is declining at an accelerating rate.”
“It is important also to stress,” he continues, “that the current regime has destroyed all autonomous institutions both power and social which earlier supplied an adaptive strength to the political system (as for example in 1998). [And consequently] it is not difficult to show” that the current regime has achieved “destructiveness” far exceeding the Romanovs or Brezhnev.
“Let us begin with the attempts of reestablishing imperial ambitions,” Satarov suggests, immediately adding that he is “certain that the current regime isn’t thinking about any attempts at restoring the former imperial space even by half.” Its advisors certainly know that this would lead to “a complete collapse.”
Consequently, the current Moscow regime has not proclaimed that as a goal. But “the criminality of the propaganda policy of the ruling clique consists in the fact that instead of the planned cure of imperial complexes, it is exploiting them in its own selfish goals (in the literal sense of this word).”
In fact, “the words of Putin are an insane and dangerous game,” given the shock of the loss of empire that many Russians feel. But they are even more dangerous because there are some in Moscow “among whom by the way are not a few military personnel” who “are reading these signals differently.”
Such people “consider the rhetoric of the powers that be as a deception,” the INDEM leader continues. “They agree with the content of the signals but are angry that this is all a fabrication imitation. [And] they dream of going from words to the deed itself,” either by pushing the regime to do what it says or by replacing it.
And these outcomes, Satarov insists, are related to corruption. Because corruption of the level Russia is experiencing means the decay of administration, this invariably leads members of the elite to call for combating corruption. But such efforts themselves in this situation can have serious and even frightening consequences.
“Out of the struggle with corruption in the Weimar Republic (in combination with revenge for defeat), Hitler came to power,” Sattarov notes. Moreover, “Franco struggled with the corruption of the Republicans in Spain. [And] Lukashenka began [his rise] with the theme of the struggle against corruption.”
Thus, he continues, it is entirely possible that “disappointment with Putin will be much deeper and more severe [for the future of Russia] than the disappointment [many in Russia feel] for Gorbachev and Yeltsin,” Sattarov concludes. The powers that come after Putin will be “forced willy nilly” to consider this reality.
Obviously, the current rulers of Russia have “a multitude of important concerns” but “the single thing they should be thinking about is how to get out of the current situation alive andhow to hand over power in a way secure for themselves – and to whom.” Whether this will be Russia’s “death agony” or “a disease that can be cured remains an open question.