1/07/2005

To Russia, With Love

The Telegraph of London has published a thought-provoking piece entitled "Look back at Weimar – and start to worry about Russia" which starts off with a clear condemnation of Vladimir Putin:

I seldom agree with the New York Times, but Nicholas Kristof was pretty much on target the other day. ''The bottom line,'' he wrote, ''is that the West has been suckered by Mr Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he's a Russified Pinochet or Franco. And he is not guiding Russia toward free-market democracy, but into fascism.'' Correct - except that Russia is not Chile or Spain. Neither of those countries was ever in a position to pose a serious threat to our security; indeed, there were many conservatives who thought it preferable that they should be fascist rather than communist.
There's something to be said for this. Putin's renationalization of Yuganskneftegas is a display of his preference for state control over vital resources; Russia's state-owned Rosneft is merging with Gazprom, effectively giving the Russian government direct control over the world's largest gas company.

The Telegraph looks at Russia's recent history and finds a disturbing parallel from the first half of the last century:
Born in 1919 in the wake of Germany's humiliating defeat in the First World War, the Weimar Republic suffered hyperinflation, an illusory boom, a slump and then, starting in 1930, a slide into authoritarian rule, culminating in 1933 with Hitler's appointment as chancellor. Total life: slightly less than 14 years.

Born in 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union's humiliating defeat in the Cold War, today's Russian Federation has suffered a slump, hyperinflation and is currently enjoying a boom on the back of high oil prices. Its slide into authoritarian rule has been gradual since Putin came to power in 1999. Is it going to culminate - 14 years on - in a full-scale dictatorship in 2005? That is beginning to look more and more likely.

Hitler's power was consolidated after 1933 by the emasculation of both parliamentary and federal institutions. Putin has already done much to weaken the Duma. His latest scheme is to replace elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees.
I'm not sure that I agree with the author's conclusion that Russia is on the brink of sliding back into full-on dictatorship this year. If we choose to think of dictatorship as the rule of a single man, the U.S.S.R. effectively ceased to be a dictatorship when Nikita Kruschev died and the Politburo named a series of increasingly-less-effective men to be the face for the Bear.

More likely, from my point of view, is a crisis of oil. As noted above, Putin has taken steps to bring ever-larger portions of the Russian oil-production machine under state control. In a system already rife with corruption, the only eventual result of these moves is a degrading of the Russian oil infrastructure. After five or seven years of such degradation, it's not hard to imagine two very cold winters stretching Russian heating oil production and delivery to the breaking point. A population of cold and hungry Russians might just welcome a handsome general in a snazzy military uniform promising to fix things quickly.

To my eye, Putin's not setting himself up for a permanent role as maximum ruler. It does seem as though Putin longs for the heady days of the hammer-and-sickle, and that is cause for concern.