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In Russia, It’s Just Like the Old Times

Vladimir Putin

Russia is regressing to the good old Soviet days. Under Putin’s watch, Moscow continues to tighten the screws, often quite arbitrarily, on contacts between Russian NGOs and foreigners of any kind. Paranoia, meet Xenophobia. The Washington Post reports that a recent visit by American diplomat Howard Solomon to a Russian NGO ended with a trial:

Solomon met with regional officials, including representatives of the ruling United Russia Party, visited the National Oilwell Varco plant in Volgorechensk, admired medieval frescoes and gave a long interview on local television. On Feb. 28 he participated in a roundtable with about 30 people, including activists, retirees, students, journalists — and a priest who gave him a hard time about American culture and Coca-Cola.

“Prosecutors believe that since we organized this roundtable with Solomon,” Sorokin said, “this is automatically political activity and that means that we are automatically foreign agents.”

The tiny organization that hosted Soloman faces ruinous fines; Russian rights activists see this as part of a typically heavy handed and clumsy crackdown by a repressive state that more and more looks back to the Soviet days for examples. Lev Ponomaryov, head of Russia’s Movement for Human Rights commented to the Post

“This is a very serious thing,” he said. “We can say this Soviet time is returning. You can be a criminal for nothing, and it won’t be two years like with Pussy Riot [the punk rock group.] It will be many, many years.”

To be fair, American human rights groups and politicians have made the crackdown both tempting and easy. There was lots of talk back in the heady days of Orange and Rose revolutions that American NGOs would fund, train, energize and equip Russian society for color revolution of its own. This all sounded to the Kremlin very much like a planned and orchestrated use of diplomatic personnel as subversives to overthrow the regime; that’s a big no-no in traditional diplomacy, and it gave Russia both a motive and a means to strike back. Between genuine paranoids who thought Washington was actually trying to take Putin down and opportunistic power snatchers who recognize a good pretext when they see one, Russia’s rulers imposed a harsh law aiming at cutting all Russian NGOs from foreign funding of any kind and are now pushing to apply the law as broadly as possible.

The Kremlin may be nostalgic for the repression and political passivity of the Soviet Union, but it is not nostalgic for its economic stagnation and decline. Unfortunately, Russia seems to be getting the whole package. Despite its immense wealth of natural resources, the government isn’t having much success at promoting the kind of economic growth that could underpin Russia’s great power ambitions.

Putin hoped to be the Lee Kwan Yew of Russia: someone who behind a facade of quasi-democratic institutions led a powerful state to create an economic miracle. Instead as time goes by he’s looking more like the second coming of Leonid Brezhnev, presiding over an era of repression in politics and economic stagnation.

That’s too bad; the aspiration to become the Lee Kwan Yew of Russia is in its way a noble one. From a US point of view a strong, confident and growing Russia with a real stake in the international system is much better than the defensive, discontented and frustrated country we are dealing with today.

We don’t have much advice for President Putin. If they installed Via Meadia in the Kremlin we don’t know what we’d do (other than taking poor Mr. Lenin’s body out of that glass case and giving him a proper burial). But incidents like this one send ugly signals, not just to western politicians, but to investors. One of Russia’s biggest problems in attracting foreign investment is the perception that the courts are the tools of powerful domestic interests. Stories like this deepen the sense that investments in Russia aren’t safe, that the forces in power use legal forms to do whatever they please.

[Vladimir Putin image courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • WigWag

    If Putin had aspirations of emulating Lee Kwan Yew, that dog was never going to bark. Yew may have led his nation with a velvet fist, but the citizens of his nation were mostly hard working, industrious and enterprising men and women of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent. Putin has a more cantankerous, less educated and far less entrepreneurial group of people to lead. Singapore also had the tremendous advantage of being mentored by their British overlords for more than a century; the civilizing impact of the British could not have been more advantageous to Singapore’s ultimate economic performance? While Singapore was being tutored by the British who was running Russia? First the Romanovs and then the communists; it’s obvious who was better off.

    Finally Singapore had two other advantages Russia never had; it never suffered under the stifling influence of the Orthodox Church and it never adopted vodka as its national beverage of choice.

    • Jim Luebke

      Wow. Anti-religious bigotry has its place on VM again, I see.

      What business does the Orthodox Church tax? What onerous regulations do they impose?

      Isn’t Singapore the country that enforces conformity to hyperconservative social norms with a 30-foot bamboo cane? This (and the vodka issue) suggests that if anything, the Orthodox Church is far too lax in its enforcement of values.

      • Tom

        One does not have to be an anti-religious bigot to see the Orthodox Church as a stifling influence on Russia, primarily regarding culture and such.
        That being said, the real problem with Russia is that it was invaded by the horse lords of Central Asia multiple times. They have never forgotten this, and have been a garrison state ever since.

      • wigwag

        Jim, I’m surprised you suggest that my comment is bigoted. Are you really suggesting that religion has nothing to do with the achievement of success in a capitalist system?

        There’s a reason, don’t you think, that Protestant northern Europe was historically so much more economically successful than Roman Catholic southern Europe? Is the Orthodox Christian world really all the filled with economic success stories? Can you name even one economically vibrant nation where a majority of citizens are Orthodox?

        I think that the relative lack of success in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic worlds as compared to the Protestant world has alot to do with how Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism interfaced with feudal society to stifle rather than encourage a culture of entrepreneurialism but I am sure that there were other factors as well.

        If you are interested in the subject, let me recommend two books to you. Professor Mead’s opus “God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World” describes in fascinating detail how the British Reformation and the Protestant values that it came to embody helped Britain and later America out compete the rest of the world. Jerry Z. Muller’s “Capitalism and the Jews” outlines how normative Judaism and the peculiar features of Jewish history interfaced to produce the idiosyncratic success that Ashkenazi Jews have enjoyed in the economic sphere.

        The idea that culture has nothing to do with economic success seems silly to me. Isn’t religion one of the anchoring tenets of any culture?

        By the way, for the argument that Orthodox Christianity doesn’t promote economic success in a capitalist system to be bigoted, one has to assume that economic success is inherently virtuous. Christianity in particular has an ambivalent relationship to economic accomplishment. There are some Christians who view prosperity as a sign of virtue; there are other Christians who view poverty as a sign of piety. Both points of view seem ridiculous to me. Being prosperous isn’t emblemmatic of being either good or bad; neither is being impoverished.

        There is simply nothing bigoted in pointing out that the historic role of the Orthodox Church in Russia hindered rather than propelled Russia’s economy,

        • Jim Luebke

          I will treasure your positive comments about Protestantism. 🙂

          That said, I agree with Tom’s assessment of Eastern Europe’s real problems — Mongols, Magyars and Turks.

          Northern Europe had their own barbarian problems with the Vikings, which resolved themselves when the Vikings Christianized.

          • wigwag

            Nations where a majority of the citizens are Orthodox Christians: Greece (95%), Moldolva (93%), Georgia (89%), Romania (87%), Belarus (85%), Serbia (84%), Bulgaria (83%), Cyprus (80%), Ukraine (80%), Russia (75%), Montenegro (74%), Macedonia (65%)
            Not a single economic powerhouse in the bunch.

          • Jim Luebke

            Are there any of these that have not suffered from invasions of various steppe peoples (including Ottoman Turks) or, more recently, communism or flirtations with communism?

  • rheddles

    And the Soviets were nostalgic for the Tsarist Ohkrana. Let the Russians be Russian. If you were caught between the Mongols, Chinese, Mulsims and Europeans you’d probably develop an attitude. Every day we should be thankful our neighbors are Canada and Mexico. It’s a beautiful day in our neighborhood.

  • Luke Lea

    You’d think the land of Tolstoy and Chekhov could somehow do better than that.

    • WigWag

      Luke, I would argue that reading Tolstoy and Chekov is a perfect way to gain insight into why contemporary Russia is the way it is.

  • drschilling

    14 Hairless Cats That Look Like Vladimir Putin – By Elizabeth F. Ralph | Foreign Policy Good read

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