TCS Daily

The Unbearable Normality of Russia

By Meelis Kitsing - March 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Our dominant impression of things Russian is an impression of a vast irreparable breakdown, observed H.G. Wells, after his 1920 visit, in the book Russia in the Shadows. Eighty-five years later not much seems to have changed.

Now what worries Western observers is the breakdown of Russias still fragile democracy and the stifling of its emerging rule of law. Politicians in the US Congress can hardly keep from falling over each other as they rattle off the problems in Russia. Richard Lugar, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last month that the fate of democracy in Russia is perhaps more ambiguous now than at any time since the collapse of the Communist system. No wonder President Bush criticized the state of democracy in Russia when he met President Putin in Bratislava last week.


The current urgency of painting things Russian in dark colors distorts reality by failing to take into account the broader picture of a fairly successful transition. This at least is the argument of two academics, Andrei Shleifer, economics professor at Harvard University, and Daniel Treisman, political science professor at University of California Los Angeles, in the forthcoming issue of Journal of Economic Perspectives. Their article, A Normal Country: Russia After Communism, of which an abridged version was published last year in Foreign Affairs, makes the point that by the late 1990s Russia had become a typical middle-income capitalist democracy.


The authors have taken great pains to employ any and all available statistics in support of their argument. In addition to the more mundane data that scientists typically consider important, such as GDP and electricity consumption, readers can learn that the purchasing power of the average Russians monthly income was 10 liters of vodka in 1990 and 47 liters in 1994. As if packing the study with quantitative data were not enough, selective qualitative comparisons with other middle-income countries enabled them to take the argument yet further. Take, for instance, comments on the relative powers of president and parliament: Russia is not very different from the presidential democracies of Argentina and Brazil.


A quick look at the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom put out by the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation reveals that Russia ranked 124th and was placed in the mostly unfree category. Thats better than the scores achieved by Belarus and Kazakhstan. At the same time, most Eastern European countries scored better than Russia. A comparison of the two above-mentioned studies would make it tempting to conclude that There are small lies, big lies and then there are statistics. However, coming to such a conclusion would be missing the point. Even if Russia fares well in comparison with Latin American countries, the country could do better. The Russian business newspaper Vedomosti reacted to the Economic Freedom index scores in an editorial published in January; the piece pointed out that Russia seems to be following the path taken by Venezuela, which has fallen to 146th position. Vedomosti argued that Russia should learn from Estonia, which scored 4th in the ranking and has consistently improved its position. 


Instead of learning, Russia is often eager to shoot itself in the foot. Obviously, Russia is a difficult country to govern and many problems stem from this special character of the country. Her rulers have used this excuse as justification for harsh methods. Trade-offs faced by Russian rulers differ from those experienced by political leaders of established and stable countries. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said about governing that Having mounted the saddle, the rider is obliged to guide the horse in peril of breaking his neck.  


Blaming Russia for its ungovernability overlooks the fact that the countrys current ruling elite has found it hard to accept the end of the Soviet empire and its glory days old instincts are not quick to die. This is especially true when factoring in Putins KGB heritage and that of his team. The so-called siloviki have gradually expanded their grasp on power, and their instincts still seem to be in line with directions given by Lenin at the first congress of Soviets in 1917: Make the profits of the capitalists public, arrest fifty or a hundred of the biggest millionaires. Just keep them in custody for a few weeksfor the simple purpose of making them reveal hidden springs, the fraudulent practices, the filth and greed which even under the new government are costing our country thousands and millions every day. Well, this time they only arrested a few billionaires and put them away for a few years, but the aggregate effect, not too mention the principle, remain the same.


Most importantly, these instincts of siloviki are not limited to the de-oligarchization of Russia; they also play out in its relations to the countries of the former Soviet Union. In an article published by Britains Daily Telegraph on January 1, 2005, Harvard University history professor Niall Fergusson argued that the current Russia resembles Germany of the 1920s and 1930s.


As is often the case with historical analogies, its a bit far-fetched. But Fergusson did bring out an important similarity: Russias current meddling in the affairs of its neighboring countries in the supposed name of protecting the Russian-speaking population there does resemble Germanys policies towards its Central European neighbors in the 1930s. A plausible explanation for such meddling certainly cannot be found in well-intended attempts to care for the welfare of its fellow Russians as official rhetoric of Russian government insists. Charity starts at home. The Russian government could begin by taking better care of Russians living in Russia. Indeed, in many neighboring countries, young Russians and their parents do not face the dark possibility of military service in Chechnya. 


It goes without saying that in international relations Russia still behaves like a major power not like any other normal middle-income country. If Russia were a regular middle-income country it would have little reason to be a member of G8, a group reserved for world-leading industrial countries. A country with a GDP similar to that of the Netherlands or Turkey can hardly be seen as a leading industrial power in the world. Precisely because of the politically sensitive role that Russia plays in the world affairs, the West must pay close attention to its politics and demand more than from a normal middle-income country. Even if, for the sake of argument, the current Russia could be seen as a normal country, such normality would be unbearable, for its own citizens, its neighbors and the rest of the world.


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