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Russia: Bright Present, Dark Future?

posted by zaina19 on August, 2007 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

Russia: Bright Present, Dark Future?
Dieter Farwick - 8/11/2007
Summer time 2007 in Moscow and St.Peterburg is an exciting highlight for visitors.
Compared with a first visit in 2004 progress is visible in the streets.
Buildings have been refurbished, cars are bigger, more expansive and newer models, women are dressed beautifully and the number of obviously poor people in the streets have decreased. Luxury is not hidden but presented without second scruples. The wedding ceremonies are celebrated driving leased stretched limousines and drinking champagne in front of historic sides.
The fashion shops present clothing and accessories at prizes higher than the yearly salary of ordinary citizens.

One prize for progress are almost permanent traffic jams in spite of an efficient and cheap public transport system.

The beauty of the Kremlin in Moscow and of the Hermitage in St.Peterburg, numerous churches and palaces on the way from Moscow to St.Peterburg is breath-taking.

It’s an irony of history that Russia nowadays attracts millions of visitors – bringing hard currency - with its churches, monasteries, palaces and manor houses of the Tsars and other noble families – assets the Soviet communism wanted to destroy for ever.

Big Russian companies show their power with huge modern headquarters. The present sailors of the “Aurora” , from which the revolution in 1917 started, see the headquarters of Gazprom just on the other side of the Neva – a symbol for “Turbo-capitalism” in Russia.

Visitors leaving Russia after their visits to Moscow and Petersburg without closer contacts with ordinary Russian citizens remember Russia as an affluent and booming country. That is one side of the medal.

Talking to ordinary Russian people and well-informed insiders the second side of the medal becomes visible.

For visitors Moscow and St.Peterburg are a kind of a huge “Village of Potemkin”.

To visit Moscow and St.Peterburg is attractive, to live there is a different issue.

The “system Putin”

The system is designed around one man – Vladimir Putin, who on the other hand is depending on a huge and loyal bureaucracy to govern this continent with eleven time zones.

It is surprising that the question of Putin’s political future seems to be more interesting for foreign visitors than for the Russian majority.

The majority of Russians are glad to have Vladimir Putin as President.

Michael Gorbatschev’s reputation in the West is higher than in Russia. He is blamed for the demise of the Soviet Union – for Putin the “greatest tragedy of the 20th century”.

Boris Yeltsin is seen as the president who brought “creative chaos” to Russia. Under his presidency a new business elite – the oligarchs – conquered and plundered Russia and got unbelievable rich. At the other hand under Yeltsin democracy got a fair chance to develop.

The famous White House became the cradle of Russian short lived democracy
Corruption, organized crime and a huge bureaucracy became facts of Russian life. Increasing inequality split the Russian society in a minority of very rich people and the majority of very poor people who have to work in two or three jobs to safeguard their living on a modest level.

After Gorbatschev and Yeltsin it was not too difficult for Putin to get better ratings in Russia – and abroad.

His “guided democracy” – a nice name for an authoritarian regime – brought a kind of stability people had been missing before.

He created a “strong state”. “Bad oligarchs” were put in jail or left the country. “Good oligarchs” cooperating with Putin were able to built new big companies as “national champions”- like Gazprom.

But as big and powerful they are and might become they are puppets on the Kremlin’s strings.

Putin’s power base is formed by the so-called “ Siloviki”” – representatives of the secret services and the military in addition of representatives of the military-industrial complex.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites at the Russian Academy of Sciences, commented on December 20, 2006, in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty the influence of the “Siloviki”:

“Today, 26 percent of the current Russian elite are people who used to work in military institutions, including secret services. The 78 percent figure comes from my special analysis of the resumes of all those belonging to the Russian elite. A number of them used to work in so-called affiliated structures – structures that were connected to the KGB during the Soviet era…

Their number in power structures appear to have increased…

New is the fact that siloviki expanded to spheres that are not traditional for them – politics and economics, both on a government level and in state-related companies.”

But the three groupings do not form a monolith block within the Kremlin. The three groups follow their own interests and fight for influence and power in consulting the president.

The governors of the 88 so-called “subjects” are selected by Putin. In the Russian parliament – the Duma – the parties supporting Putin hold more than 70 per cent of the seats.

There are no free media in Russia. Critics lost their job or even their life – as Anna Politkovskaja.

Putin restricted the work of international NGOs by law. There is no real opposition in Russia. They are split. Garry Kasparov, the former chess word champion, is primarily fighting for human rights. He and Grigory Yawlinski are individual figures. They do not cooperate. Kasparov’s political alliance with Eduard Limonov, the leader of the Ntional-Bolshevik Party caused other opposing groups to distance themselves from him. The former Prime Minister Michael Kasianov plays a minor role.

They all are able to organize demonstrations but they have no political clout – at present. Even in totally free elections they have no chance
to get more than 5 percent for each of the various opposition groupings.
What does this mean for the presidential elections in March 2008?

The “system Putin” will win a vast majority in the parliamentarian elections in December 2007 and Putin will decide who will be the next president in 2008.
There are some speculations under discussion.

People who know Putin better than I do cannot imagine that he will live as a political pensioner in Moscow or St.Peterburg. He will play a vital role – be it in the industry, in “his” political party or – even as President.

It might be possible that the Russian people ask Putin via referenda to stay in charge. It might be possible that the Duma change the law allowing Putin to go on. There is another option: Putin might pick and chose a candidate who might retire after a short period of time opening the door again for Putin.

There are two candidates from the Kremlin – Sergey Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev – who without any doubt have the competence and personal power to follow Putin. But – that would not change the “system” in the short run. They would try to follow the line of their godfather Putin.

Elena Tregubova, a very courageous and critical Russian author, who knows the power mechanism in Moscow’s Kremlin very well, writes in her book with the German title “ Die Mutanten des Kreml” (Russian titles: Baiki kremljowskogo diggera” and “ Protschtschanije kremljowskogo diggers. After having survived a murderous attack and having lost her job Elena T. lives in exile in London. With the in Moscow murdered Anna Politkovskaja Elena T. is the most outspoken critic of Putin, whom she knows personally for many years, and the Kremlin’s politics)
“Putin’s single aim and objective is to safeguard the power of his clan. He will not shy away from any means to reach this aim and objective….

The talking heads change within the Kremlin, but the body remains the same – a Mafioso clan, a corporation, which holds the power even using brutal force.” (tranlslation by D.F. )

Putin’s foreign policy

When I listened to Putin’s tough speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007, I and many colleagues asked the question: What is the main target group of this speech?

After my talks in Moscow I am convinced that the audience at home in Russia was the main target group.

Russian people had the feeling that Russia under Gorbatschev and Yeltzin had lost its position as a respected power on the world’s stage.

The loss of former Soviet republics, the enlargement of NATO as well as the status of the USA as the only surviving superpower from the Cold war enforced the feeling of inferiority of Russia towards the West which is a traditional Russian mood.

These feelings have been enforced by the emerging powers China, India and Japan.
With his speech in Munich and similar tough speeches following Putin obviously gave national pride back to Russian people. He skilfully plays the cards of Russian patriotism.

Russians feel that Russia is back again in the concert of world powers.
To bring the Olympic Winter Games to Sotschi in 2014 was a very successful coup of Putin.

His reluctance to cooperate with the West to find a solution for Iran and the Kosovo gets domestic support. His unilateral suspension of the CFE treaty is more symbolic than substance as the conventional forces in Europe – especially heavy tanks and artillery howitzer - have lost a great part of their former Cold War significance but the suspension follows the same line of muscle flexing.
With his attacks against the West in general and the USA especially Putin paints a gloomy picture of great threats and risks which Russia is confronted with – now and in the future.

These threats asks for a strong Russian leader – as Vladimir Putin represents in a unique way.

The prize is high for the “guided democracy”

The renowned Russian Political expert, Lilija Schewzowa, describes the fusion of the legislative and executive side of the Russian political system as efficient “vertical” – a clear top down system without giving any leeway to lower level or different regions. It is surprising that the vast majority of Russian people accepts the deficits of the political system as a prize they have to pay for the stability of their life. In her book “A Russian Diary “(Rossiskije chronikije)Anna Politkovskaja repeatedly blames her compatriots for their a-political attitude of “apathy and frustration”. The obvious misuse of alcohol might be the consequence of this apathy and frustration.

The murder of this renowned journalist caused a political and cultural “tsunami”. A strong signal to people who oppose the “system Putin”. The reaction of Putin was remarkable. After three days of silence he called Anna Politkovskaja “irrelevant” and declared that her murder damaged Russia’s image more than her publications. Another aspect of Russians people reluctance to openly oppose the system is the dependence of many people from financial state transfer. In Russia there is obviously only a small middle class between the few rich and the many have-nots.

The quest for a strong leadership and the ability to suffer are obviously characteristics for Russian people. Many Russians are a-political and not too much interested in public life. They try to care for their private life and that of their families. Konstantin Eggert, Moscow Bureau Editor, BBC Russian Service, describes the relation between the government and the people as follows:
” It is never said but nevertheless there exists a clear arrangement between the society at large and the powers that be – the society is pretty much left to its own devices, as long as in exchange it does not dabble in politics and votes “the right way” every once in a while – during parliamentary and presidential elections.”

The most pressing social issues are: the unfair distribution of national income, education, health care and in the mid-term the demographic development.
Low salaries and very low pensions force many people to fight for their survival – looking at the higher living costs in the cities. Households need more than one income. Many people have two or three jobs. It is interesting to hear that they have to pay only 13 percent of taxes for the first job.

Health care is officially cost-free. But medical doctors ask for bribes for better treatment. In comparison with Europe life expectancy is very low for men in Russia with 58 years. In this respect the misuse of Vodka plays a negative role.

But the Russian society is getting older – especially women – and asking for a longer payment of pensions the state has to shoulder in combination with higher costs for medical treatment of the ageing population.

The future of Russia

“It should become as it is”. This ironic assessment of the author Vasili Axjonow is quoted by Anna Politkovskaja expressing the fear that the present Russian life might not be sustainable in the future. There are certainly serious reasons for this anxiety. The high revenues for selling oil and gas are not infinitely available.

Oil production in Russia has already crossed the “peak”. The production costs will increase as the production gets more complicated. Whether high investments in new or so far less efficient oil fields will be paid back by the market is far from certain. So far Russia does not spend enough money to prepare for a “post-oil-era”. The investments in education, new technology and better health care are insufficient. The ageing and decline of the population by millions under poor health conditions will ask for high social costs.

For the time being there is enough money to mitigate these social problems. But with declining revenues and mounting domestic problems the current stability might fade away. The mixture of “guided democracy ” with unlimited greed, corruption, organised crime, poverty, lack of morale and of free media as well as non-existing justice is at present under control. But in future ?

Trying to assess the future of USA the danger of “imperial overstretch” is often mentioned - not so regarding Russia. But this question is legitimate regarding Russia. Does a country like Russia with about 130 million people (USA 300 million), with a GDP of about 400 billion USD(USA 10 trillion), with a Defence budget of about 60 billion(USA 500 billion) got enough resources to match the USA, EU, China and India as present and emerging world powers? Can Russia sustain a policy of power projection from Asia via Europe to Africa?

Can Russia afford well- trained and well-equipped military forces with a defence budget of about 60 billion USD(USA spending yearly more money on research and development than Russian military gets for its total budget) ? (Figures of defence spending are taken from “Military Balance 2006”, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London)

How can they afford to equip military forces from the deep sea to space?

How can they afford to station troops abroad – as in Georgia ?

What is the morale of Russian troops fighting for years in Chechnya with higher losses than the USA encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan?

History does not repeat itself. Hopefully that is true for Russia, too. The Soviet Union imploded because they could not afford any longer the arms race with USA and NATO countries. Does Russia want a new arms race?

They should ask Gorbatschev about his lessons learned about arms race. For him and the Soviet Union SDI was the decisive signal that the arms race with USA was no longer affordable. This fact became the decisive factor for the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

To counter the US Anti-Ballistic Missile system(ABM) with high investments would divert scarce resources in the wrong direction – investing in hard power instead of improving soft power. Nobody, neither in the USA nor in Europe is interested in a failing Russia. The West and Russia need each other – the West needs Russian energy, Russia needs Western high-tech and modern technology.

The West should offer a fair cooperation, but should avoid the term “partnership”. “Partnership” implies a set of common values and common goals. That is not possible between Western pluralistic and democratic governments and the “ system Putin”.

Russia has to solve an additional problem: national identity. Most Russians do not regard Russia as a multi-ethnic entity. Russia belongs to the Russians, ethnic minorities have to accept this view. What is the position Russia and its people want to take? No country can escape geography and history. Both are not very favorable for a modern Russia. Do they feel as Europeans or do they feel as Asians – or both? Are they able and willing to build one strong pillar on the common Eurasian continent ? With the EU as the second pillar?

Or do they see China as strategic partner and counterweight to the West?

Russians have to find their answer themselves. That includes the reconditioning of the Soviet past. The recent Russian movie “Grus 200” questions the official Kremlin picture of Soviet history and attacks the glorification of the Soviet past. It comes to no surprise that this movie provokes very controversial reactions.

The weekly magazine “Kommersant Wlast” calls the movie “ the Russian movie without any compromise”. The TV channel “Rossija” calls the movie “the most anti Soviet movie”. “Rossija” and other state controlled TV stations refrain from sending this movie. The fact that Vladimir Putin celebrates officially the anniversary of the Chekists is – to put it mildly – surprising. Without an open debate and transparent information about the Soviet past will remain a closed chapter for most Russians it is next to impossible to deal with the future.
Germany for example did a lot to openly and painfully tackle the dark chapter of 12 years under Hitler. It is important especially for younger generations to know the history of the own countries with the bright and the dark chapters. With this knowledge the present and the future are better to understand and it makes the interrelation with other countries much easier.

The question is whether there is a chance to influence the future development of Russia and Russia’s political system from the outside.

History teaches that this is very difficult. Any political and cultural change has to come from the inside – as we nowadays recognise in Iraq and In Afghanistan. But – does this mean that we have to keep our mouth shut recognising the violations of human rights and democratic rules under Putin ?
Western media – including the internet – should give a platform for Russian opposing view and should at the other hand inform Russian people about relevant world’s affairs and opinions.

Russian authorities have already recognised that the internet can be a very dangerous mean of infiltration of the Russian society by exchanging opposing view within Russia and from abroad as the following report "shows".

“A political battle is raging in Russian cyberspace. Opposition parties and independent media say murky forces have committed vast resources to hacking and crippling their Web sites similar to those that hit tech-savvy Estonia as the Baltic nation sparred with Russia over a Soviet war memorial….

Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is quoted:

“ A huge information war awaits Russia before the elections…. There will be purges of online publications, shutdowns or takeovers of last independent media outlets and strong pressure on Web users.“

In her book Elena Tregubova blames the West – especially the politicians and media - to be a “complacent accomplice” of the “system Putin”. She reproaches the West with its reluctance to call a spade a spade in talks with Russian leaders.

“You have any right to forget what I have told you. But, please be not surprised and do not pretent to be innocent, if and when Putin ( or any successor, perhaps a member of the new “Politbüro”) starts blackmailing the West. History does not know any dictator ship which sooner or later did not become aggressive against his near and more distant neighbours…….

If you do nothing then you share the responsibility for the bloodshed in Russia done by the Kremlin” (translation by D.F.)

One issue is not visible in Moscow and St.Peterburg: Islam. There are only a few mosques for the 2-3 millions of Moslems living there. Moslems dressed as Moslems are very seldom to be seen in the streets – less than in Germany. They are obviously dressed the Russian style.

But, below the surface problems with Moslems – coming from relatively poor Southern republics of the Caucasus region – are existing, especially because of the war in Chechnya.

I witnessed a clash between young Russian and young Non-Russian just in front of the Kremlin. The police stopped the clash immediately.

Visiting Moscow and St.Peterburg is a reminder of common cultural roots with Europe.

To find the common is sometimes more difficult than to expand on the divide, but it is worth trying.
The article was also published on the web site of the World Security Network.

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