UPDATE: Zbignew Brzezynzki may be starting to rejoin the earth after years far to the left of 99% of humanity.
The Cold war ended with the fall of the USSR in 1991. Boris Yeltsin courageously stopped the KGB apparatchiks from taking back control of the country. Unfortunately, Boris was a drunk with lots of corrupt relatives. His administration was riddled with corruption and it is widely suspected that there was a deal between Yeltsin and Putin to leave Yeltsin alone as long as Putin was given a cloak of legitimacy.
Having surrounded himself with corrupt cronies and financiers, Yeltsin paid only lip service to fighting crime and corruption. He presided over an unprecedented deterioration in Russia’s internal security and law enforcement. The population became disgruntled as bandits ruled the streets and businesses, while businesspeople, foreign and domestic, balked at investing. Taken together, the failures of the post-communist transformation and the inability to construct even a minimal social safety net lowered the already meager standard of living of tens of millions of Russians and helped make Boris Yeltsin as unpopular at the end of his term as Mikhail Gorbachev was at the end of his.
At first, Putin cleaned house.
Thus far, Putin’s political and public relations instincts have been astute. He was filmed giving out hunting knives to Russian officers and troops in the trenches of Chechnya the morning of New Year’s Day, when most Russians were sound asleep after having spent the night toasting the new millennium. He sent Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Diachenko, packing on his first day on the job. The notorious Diachenko not only was her father’s Kremlin advisor, but is also alleged to have spearheaded many of the corrupt financial dealings attributed to the Yeltsin family. He fired Yeltsin’s presidential property manager, Pavel Pavlovich Borodin, who is now being sought by police in Switzerland. He demoted Nikolai Aksenenko, first deputy prime minister in charge of the economic portfolio, to preside over the railways, while elevating a tough debt negotiator, former Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, to the No. 1 economic position. Watching their dynamic new acting president, many Russians quoted their proverb, “a new broom, which sweeps clean.”
However, Putin is not a democrat.
Vladimir Putin will be strongly tempted to revert to the traditional paths of autocracy and statism. As a former intelligence officer and head of the secret police, he has the right profile to emerge as a centralizing, strong leader in the tradition of Peter the Great, or even worse, Nicholas I, the preeminent monarch-policeman of the first part of the nineteenth century. Putin’s entry into the political scene is inescapably connected to the war in Chechnya, which, the critics say, was engineered to launch the “Putin for President” campaign. He may see both the fate of Russia and his rule through the traditional prism of military prowess and conquest.
Russia has two major problems; one is a very low birthrate.
The Russian population is expected to drop by 700,000 in 2001 and will
total 144.5 million, according to the state statistics committee quoted by
Over the past eight years, Russia’s population has decreased by close to
two percent with 2.8 million fewer people, according to official figures.
Deaths far outpace births by a ratio of 14.7 in 1,000 compared to 8.4.
Only 1.2 million children are born each year in Russia, well below the two
million needed to keep the population at existing levels, said Kulakov.
But the big problem for high technology in Russia is neither money nor ideas. It is the country’s all-pervasive bureaucracy, weak legal system and culture of corruption. This may explain why the nanotechnology corporation has so far found only one project to invest in (and that is registered in the Netherlands). The share of high-tech products in Russia’s exports is only 0.6%, “a shameful rate” according to Vladimir Fortov, a member of the Russian Academy of Science. Over the past 15 years, he says, Russia has not brought to the market a single significant drug. The average age of Russia’s scientists is well over 50. One of the main commercial activities of Russian research institutes is leasing or selling their property and land.
Now, Putin seems to be adopting the methods of Stalin, those of armed robbery writ large, as he seeks to control Georgia which has major pipelines and other economic attractions. The crisis has been building for months and exploded this weekend, probably to coincide with the Olympics. The USSR did much the same in the past, invading and crushing Hungary when Britain and France invaded Egypt in 1956. Unfortunately, we allowed a precedent in Kosovo during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, said Russia’s ambitions were even more extensive. He declared that Georgia was in a state of war, and said in an interview that Russia was planning to seize ports and an oil pipeline and to overthrow his government.
That is so much cheaper than actually building them. The oil price rise the past year has given Russia a huge boost in its cash flow but that may not be a long term solution to Putin’s problems. He may have decided to punish the west for its support of Georgia by interrupting the pipelines that pass through Georgia and precipitate a crisis in Europe. That would frighten Europe but would it solve his problems ?
Oil and gas have been the foundation of the regime of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s outgoing president, and are also a preoccupation of his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who was chairman of Gazprom, the state-controlled gas giant. The flow of petrodollars has created a sense of stability, masked economic woes and given Russia more clout on the world stage. Yet the malaise afflicting its most important industry is almost entirely man-made. “Geologically, there is no problem,” says Anisa Redman, an analyst at HSBC, a bank.
In principle, Russia’s bonanza could continue for years: it has the world’s seventh-biggest oil reserves, at 80 billion barrels, according to BP, a British oil firm. And oilmen reckon there are 100 billion more barrels to find—“the biggest exploration prize in the world”, in the words of Robert Dudley, the boss of TNK-BP, BP’s Russian joint venture. But Russia has regulated the industry so poorly that production is falling despite the soaring oil price.
“Tax is the major impediment,” says Ms Redman. The government levies an export duty of 65% at prices over $25 a barrel. Add to that various corporate, payroll and production taxes, oilmen complain, and the state creams off as much as 92% of profits. Executives at TNK-BP have argued that rising costs across the oil industry will make many investments in Russia unprofitable unless the tax regime is changed. As it is, TNK-BP accounts for a fifth of BP’s production, but only a tenth of its profits.
The Russians still do not understand economics and that ignorance may be costly for everybody. In the meantime, it emphasizes the risks of a callow youth like Obama as president. McCain has been to Georgia multiple times and knows the people involved. He has never bought the line that Putin is a modern statesman. Obama supporters, as is so often the case, blame America and America’s friends for Russia’s actions. Those 1500 people killed thus far were “inconvenient.”
Administration officials have regularly cautioned Mr. Saakashvili to be patient on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even as they have given private and public reassurances about NATO membership. It would, in fact, be surprising if Georgia had consciously provoked a war in South Ossetia, since Mr. Saakashvili understands that doing so would almost certainly put an end to the NATO bid; indeed, Russia may well calculate that NATO will continue to exclude Georgia so long as the country is embroiled in hostilities along its border.
Georgia’s predicament seems very simple from the vantage point of Tbilisi — 1921, 1938 — but extremely complicated from a great remove. Russia threatens Georgia, but Georgia threatens Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia looks like a crocodile to Georgia, but Georgia looks to Russia like the cats’ paw of the West. One party has all the hard power it could want, the other all the soft. And now, while the world was looking elsewhere, the frozen conflict between them has thawed and cracked. It will take a great deal of care and attention even to put things back to where they were before.
It will take a firm hand to avoid losing, not only Georgia, but Ukraine to Russian revanchism. Obama does not have that firm hand.