Sunday, June 04, 2006

About Russia

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday, so of course the topic of Putin and Russia came up. Yes, I have those kinds of friends. But it's relevant to yesterday's post about the SCO, so I'd like to repeat myself a bit.

In the western discussion of Putin and Russia, much is made about Putin clawing back democracy, and a lot of it is with good reason. But almost never do you hear a simple, basic fact about Russian history for the last, oh, 15 years or so:

Democracy failed in Russia. It failed in every single test of governance. The economy imploded, Russia's international stature declined dramatically, the security situation got worse inside Russia, and even before Putin, the political system was (at best!) a joke of corruption and cronyism. And we in the west watched as it happened, and did pathetically little to stop it. In fact, through our proxies in the IMF, we actually encouraged the economic meltdown that occured.

Now, I'm not saying that I believe Putin is right to do what he's doing. I believe that democracy is an absolute good, not a relative or utilitarian one. That said, you can hardly expect Russians today to be full-throated champions of liberalism, when liberalism is seen as the reason Russia is in such bad straits. As one example: The Russian economy grew an average of 6.7% from 1999-2003, which is hardly Chinese-level growth, but is still better than the US or Canada have managed in the same period. This is even more significant when you consider that in the period of 1991-1998, the Russian economy probably shrank by at least 50%.

Dean Baker has said that, outside of a major war, no economy has ever been destroyed the way Russia's has. I'd go even further: Thanks to the work of Jeffrey Sachs and others, Russia suffered more at the hands of global capitalism than it did from the Wehrmacht.

In no way is Putin responsible for Russia's economic recovery - the devaluation of the ruble, and the increase in energy prices did that. But it is nevertheless true that Russians are doing better under Putin than they were under Yeltsin. It is also true that Putin has managed some serious political reforms in Russia that were necessary, even if unpopular in the west. One example would be Putin's transformation of Russia from a federal to a near-unitary state: Regional and local governors, once elected, are now appointed by the Kremlin. Given how Russia came close to flying apart under Yeltsin, this was a necessary step - even if it makes Russia a less democratic state.

The SCO, too, is an obviously troubling development. Many describe it as Russia's attempt to rebuild an empire in Asia. This a) ignores the fact that the SCO was founded by China, and b) might still be accurate. But once again, most Russians see the post-Soviet decline in Russia's power as a great tragedy, and would be happy to see Russia regain some of its glory. Had we in the west worked to give Russia a gentler transition to democracy and capitalism, this might not have happened.

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