Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah

Ben Judah has done an impressive job in showcasing his travels and interviews throughout Russia. Recent events with Ukraine and the Crimea have done much to put Russia in the center of western media. What has become evident is that the budget cuts and lack of funding for academic research into Eastern Europe has led to a dearth of knowledge about Russia and Putin's administration. The end result is a glut of news anchors dithering about, trying to decipher what it all means, all the while forgetting any type of journalistic integrity and commencing to scream at the top of their lungs that the end of the world is nigh.

These journalists, and many others, would do well to read Ben Judah's discussion about how Vladimir Putin has created a country that has both impressed and depressed many of Russia's citizens within the span of the last fifteen years. The embarrassment that was the Yeltsin administration saw Russia turn to the west for help with her transition to 'capitalism' with the end result being a fall off an economic precipice that left many regretting the end of the Soviet Union while billions were stolen and sent into overseas bank accounts as a few lucky future oligarchs were able to game the system for their own needs. Those same oligarchs helped retain Yeltsin's presidency in 1996 and thought they could control his successor with as much ease. Unfortunately Putin was playing a different game than the perpetually drunk Yeltsin.

With Putin's ascension to power much began to change. He first went after the main source of information for the population, television stations/channels, and forced two former oligarchs out of the country after their channels featured attacks against his administration. With power over television programming in the hands of the Kremlin, Putin's PR campaign could truly begin. His next major target was Khodorkovsky as he retained control of one of the major companies within Russia. Khodorkovsky reaped his rewards in the 1990s like all the other oligarchs, through any means necessary. In the early 2000s he decided that Russian oil and Russian companies in general were worth more than many outside Russia had valued them and he began to overhaul his operations, utilizing western techniques in not only the actual drilling and exploration of/for oil, but in how he managed his company's finances (focusing somewhat on transparency). This gave the impression that this was a company that seemed bent on fighting corruption rather than partaking in it, but in all fairness this was done to boost the image and profits of Yukos as much as it was Khodorkovsky trying to make amends (perhaps) for what he'd done in the 1990s. He began to donate to political organizations (including Putin's party) and gave money to the public for schools/education, etc. Unfortunately, getting involved in politics is exactly what Putin had warned the oligarchs against after he had come to power. Being warned numerous times wasn't enough for Khodorkovsky. He continued to pursue his interests and eventually that resulted in charges being filed against him and his company. He would sit in jail until 2014 while Putin reaped the benefits of the company he had revamped and built up in the form of taxes on oil, which Putin and his associates would use to enrich themselves and make life somewhat more comfortable for the rest of the Russian state.

Pensions would be funded and raised, as would salaries. For Russians coming out of the 1990s, where the murder rate was one of the highest in the world and workers often failed to be paid for months at a time, having regular salaries and a leader presented through his PR campaign as bent on fighting corruption meant Putin's popular continued to rise during his first two terms in office. But all the gains made in moving against the oligarchs and providing minor, yet useful and badly needed, benefits to the Russian population soon wore off as Medvedev came and went while Putin stayed either in the back or foreground. Todays Russian billionaires and major political figures within Russia owe their position(s) to Putin. They've created a new segment of the population that controls the majority of Russia's wealth and power and have begun to put their children into future positions that will continue their 'legacies'.

In response, opposition movements have begun but have yet to find a voice that speaks to the entire country, or at least the majority of the voters. Many are unhappy with the continued abuse and corruption that's become a common feature of their lives, including the fact that Moscow is akin to Paris and New York, a microcosm that is not representative of the rest of the nation yet contains much of its wealth and intelligentsia. From the former battleground of Chechnya to the Far East, corruption, abuse, apathy, and neglect are readily evident in every city and region. There's a bitter feeling, whether true or not, that Russia is falling into the hands of 'immigrants', be they from China or the central asian republics (Chechens are included here as well). Russia hardly produces anything aside from natural resources and those will not last forever; oil production is already projected to fall by over 100 million barrels per day in the next few years unless tens of billions are invested in new wells and drilling techniques. Thus in many ways the 'stability' that Putin has created in Russia is a fragile one that's currently being tested on the international arena with the 'Crimean Crisis'. Nothing lasts forever, but the question that's becoming more evident is will Russia revert to the days of the 1990s without Putin and his 'entourage' or continue to move in a general, albeit all too slow, direction of 'democracy' and 'capitalism'?

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