Russia: How it got where it is and where it’s going


Russia, Russia, Russia. Every day brings new stories of intrigue involving Russia and Trump. But there isn’t too much in the mainstream media about what is happening in Russia itself.

In March, tens of thousands of Russians rallied in almost 100 cities to protest government corruption. This was the largest protest wave since the 2011-2012 demonstrations against election fraud. This time, people were angry about Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption. Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure, posted reports on social media about Medvedev’s mansions, yachts and vineyards (which he couldn’t conceivably afford on his government salary).

The peaceful demonstrators defied bans on protests and were arrested by the hundreds. Navalny was also arrested, fined and jailed for 15 days for organizing the rallies.

Roman Dobrokhotov, a Moscow-based journalist writing for Al Jazeera, says that the protesters included “an unusually high number of youth — not only university but also high school students. Photos from the protests showed the brawny bodies of policemen towering over 14 to15-year-olds. These children were born during the Putin era and despite their ‘patriotic upbringing’ actively enforced in schools and in the media, they came out wanting change.”

Dobrokhotov argues that Navalny is “Russia’s Bernie Sanders… the hero of the internet generation. He could publish his numerous investigations into government corruption not on traditional media outlets, but on social media and his blog. He has almost two million followers on Twitter. He would win any internet vote on any topic.”

He says the younger generation doesn’t watch TV “not necessarily for political reasons, but because it simply doesn’t find it interesting.”

This is a problem since state-controlled TV is “the main support lever of Vladimir Putin’s power.” When Putin first became president, about 2 percent of the Russian population was using the internet regularly. But today, 70 percent of Russians use the internet.

Dobrokhotov says the Kremlin “never managed to turn the internet into a propaganda machine because the way the internet works is different from traditional media.” TV viewers passively consume information whereas internet users choose what to look at. During the demonstrations, there was record traffic on independent news websites reporting on what was going on and some 150,000 watched a live internet broadcast of the protests simultaneously.

Navalny is planning to run for president in the 2018 election. Much of his campaign emphasizes fighting inequality. Signs at his campaign office have slogans like “Hospitals and roads, not palaces for officials.” The first line of a campaign leaflet says: “A dignified life for everyone, and not wealth for the 0.1 percent.”

Russia has the most unequal of all the planet’s major economies, according to a recent report by Credit Suisse. The richest 10 percent of Russians own 87 percent of all the country’s wealth. Economist Joe Stiglitz says, “Russia’s GDP is now about 40 percent of Germany’s and just over 50 percent of France’s. Life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.

“In terms of per capita income, Russia now ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity) — well below the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. The country has deindustrialized: the vast majority of its exports now come from natural resources.”

The Cold War is over. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said:

“Russia isn’t Communist, or even leftist; it’s just an authoritarian state, with a cult of personality around its strongman, that showers benefits on an immensely wealthy oligarchy while brutally suppressing opposition and criticism.”

How did this happen? The transition from Communism was complicated. In the 1990s, the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin adopted rapid “shock therapy” free market economic reforms based on the “Washington Consensus” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and U.S. Treasury Department. There was a severe drop in living standards.

On Dec. 31, 1999, Yeltsin suddenly resigned six months early and appointed Vladimir Putin as acting president. The nation was in the middle of a vicious war with Chechen rebels, and Putin was able to be elected by presenting himself as a strong leader crushing the insurrection.

Putin would become quite popular. He benefitted from rising world oil prices and the devaluation of the ruble in 1998, which boosted demand for domestic goods. He presents himself as a populist but has continued the economic policies of Yeltsin, which embraced “neo-liberalism,” a form of capitalism pioneered by Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet, which promotes privatization and the gutting of the social welfare state.

Ilya Matveev, a sociologist based in St. Petersburg, writing on Open Democracy, says, “Putin is often presented as an autocrat who smothers business. Yet big capital needed — and still needs — Putin as a figure.”

Matveev notes that in his first term, Putin introduced “a new Labour Code, which was more profitable for employers, a flat-rate income tax, lower corporate taxes and a reformed pension system. (The latter reform was helped through by José Piñera, the architect of privatized pensions in Pinochet’s Chile.)”

No wonder Trump admires Putin so much.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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