Russia at the Crossroads
Note: This post was originally written in 2013. Since then, the political situation in Russia has not improved, and the country faces economic declines and population decrease.
Update December 2020: The Russian Government is not concerned about its image in the West. They recently tried to assassinate the main Russian opposition leader Nawalny, without success.
Russia has interfered in the US Presidential Elections in 2016 and in 2020. I am convinced that Trump won power in 2016 only through Putin's secret interference. Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort gave a complete demographic data to the Russian ambassador, which was then used for targeted misinformation on social media in the swing states. Russia hacked into campaign email accounts for Hillary Clinton and released politically sensitive information slowly. Russia hosts Edward Snowden, a former high-level US Government computer expert who betrayed his country.
In recent years, Russia tried to level the playing field by waging an undeclared secret-service war against Western democracies, and in particular ,against the US. This story is just beginning: The US Government will not easily forget what happened. The Russian damage to the US political system amounts to an act of war, which is worse than the storming of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, for which Iran is still paying a political and economic price.
The organizing idea of the Russian political system is the state as a prison. Russians are not citizens, they are serfs without real rights. The state operates with impunity through pressure, corruption, violence and intimidation. Elections are manipulated, the government relies on propaganda and does not feel any sense of accountability to its people. In this regard, Russia is the mirror image of a modern Western state defined by its democracy. As a result, the economic gap between Russia and Western European states is increasing: Russian GDP is less than half of the German GDP, and GDP/capita in Russia is only about a quarter of the German GDP. Due to Western sanctions, the Russian economy is barely growing since Russia started its war against the Ukraine in 2014 by annexing the Crimea.
Update 2017: Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese prison in 2017.
Update Dec 26, 2013: Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from jail on Dec 20, 2013. He is now organizing a democratic movement for Russia from exile.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is an almost forgotten Russian voice; he spent the last 10 years of his life in Russian jails in Siberia. He once was one of the richest men of Russia, but he disagreed too much with Putin. On October 24, 2013 he managed to publish a letter to the New York Times from jail. It is worth reading, because it summarizes the state of Russia today very eloquently. He says that the situation and the outlook for Russia is grim, therefore the Europeans should step in and renew the deep bonds between Europe and Russia in order to help Russia move on. This would be a win-win situation, because Russia is a part of Europe, and it has many natural resources that Europe needs. The European integration project is itself stagnating, and opening Russia to Europe would create a boost for both sides. He concludes his article with a vision:
Yes, such a change would require a serious new effort from the Euro-Atlantic civilization. First in terms of personnel, and second in terms of technology and innovation. We would be talking about hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and specialists, about a gigantic splash of energy from a new generation of Europeans onto huge, and thus far poorly developed, expanses, about joint work, about a new Europe — from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific.
For our people — the Russian people — this would become a real opportunity to overcome a situation that has existed since the 17th century, and to bridge the gap that has formed between the limited number of Russians who have a notion of modern Europe and live by its standards, and the rest of the country’s population, the many millions whose dream of a better life has been unscrupulously exploited for centuries by politicians who continue to preach a nonexistent “special way” for Russia that only leads people deeper into misery.
Today, against the background of ongoing migrations into Europe and ongoing change in Asia, the split between Europe and Russia is a gap that can lead to extremely unfavorable consequences. The disastrous project of stagnation needs an ambitious European alternative.
I agree with him. The historic separation between Europe and Russia can be overcome, and if France and Germany could settle their history of wars and become close friends, why could Russia not join the European Union as an associate or even full member? It is a colossal project, but it also offers incredible opportunities for everyone. A European system that extents from the Atlantic to the Pacific and reaches deep into Asia, with a population of almost 700 million people and huge natural resources, would transform world politics and change history.
The obstacles to this vision are taunting. The political will to move into this direction would have to come from Russia. and it cannot be done while Putin is in power. He uses nationalism as the major theme of his government – the nonexistent “special way”. But after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia lost its status as a super power: It has few allies, no international presence, and enormous internal problems. After their disastrous support for a murderous Syrian government, Russia is more and more isolated. Russia today is a reactive world player, similar in size and strength to Brazil or Mexico, and their last major trump-card is the permanent seat on the Security Council.
Like a Grand Hotel whose best days are gone, Russia has pride, but the infrastructure is crumbling. It did not have a successful transition into a new system after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991/92. The Russian Revolution failed for a second time. Today, the most intransigent problem for the country is corruption. How can Europe align itself with a country that is drowning in corruption, a country where the entire power structure is corrupt, not just a few officials? To put this in perspective: Transparency International creates a yearly corruption perceptions index, and for the year 2012, Russia scored #133 out of 174 countries, equal to Iran, and only one step above Nigeria, Kenya, or Pakistan.
Russia seems to have an eternal problem with political power. It survives today as a “soft” dictatorship. This form of dictatorship is different from the Mid-20th century totalitarian models of Mao, Stalin, or Hitler, but still very dangerous for citizens, and detrimental to the country. “Soft” dictatorships embrace market systems, like China, or even democracy and markets, like Russia. But these institutions are just the façade; behind it there exists a police state that skillfully manipulates public opinion and elections, and silences opponents by using the legal or criminal system against them. Such systems have no internal checks and balances, because the people who should enforce controls and search for truth, like judges or police, are themselves part of the system. They get bought off. Justice functions in the service of politics, and all other institutions fall in line.
Putin’s name will be remembered forever as another failed Russian leader. associated with these early 21st century soft dictatorships. Russia had economic growth under Putin, but this is not due to a strong and productive market economy: it is the result of rising worldwide costs for oil, gas and other raw materials. Russia is a major oil producer, bigger than Saudi-Arabia. This rising demand for oil and gas helped Putin to finance his reign and appease the population.
Over time, everyone understands that Putin operates by blending political skill with criminality. The real cost for Russia is enormous. It has lost international recognition, and its economy is eroding. Russia faces massive capital outflows (about 15 billion per year) which means rich Russians take the money they steal and invest it somewhere else. And the people who don’t have money to move abroad, want to move themselves. The degree of repression in Russia can be measured by the amount of people wanting to leave. In the last 10 years, more than 2.5 million people have left Russia. This brain-drain, together with a shrinking population, represents bad demographic news for Russia. According to the Russian market research company ROMIR, a third of Russia’s young professionals are thinking about leaving. This trend is caused by a lack of opportunities, and no hope for the future. Depression and alcoholism are wide-spread, and the average life expectancy of Russians is 6 years less than in the US (72 years versus 78.)
Another symptom for the failure of the “system Putin” is the flight of foreign investors. The withdrawal of foreign capital since 2008 has reached $350 billion and continues. Entrepreneurs and investors are often subjected to criminal prosecution as a form of extortion. Some of them, like Sergei L. Magnitsky and Vasily G. Aleksanyan, have died while in prison. The Magnitsky case is especially interesting because it jolted the US Congress into action. Congress passed a law and Obama signed it in Dec 2012: it prohibits entry to 18 Russian officials who were involved with the death of Sergei Magnitsky and opens the door for precisely tailored political sanctions against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats from other countries. This angered Putin so much that he stopped adoptions of Russian children by American parents.
The government reacts to political opposition through random violence or by criminalizing it. This happened in the case of the girls who form the Pussy Riot band, or for Alexei Navalny, the former candidate for mayor in Moscow. In this situation, political dialog about the future of the country gets shut down, Russia reverts back to its old Czarist ways and moves away from a democratic culture. The only hope is that there are enough people in the educated middle class who preserve their sense of justice, and will eventually muster the necessary courage to stand up and fight for a better system.
There is another political prisoner whom we should not forget. It is Liu Xiaobo, who is in a Chinese jail, and whose crime was to demand democracy for China. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but the Chinese government is too afraid to allow him to speak. They want the opposition to be silent as well. The dictatorships may be soft, but the repression is brutal.