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Published on: February 14, 2014
After Sochi
Russia’s Political Magical Realism

The glitter of the Sochi spectacle hides the reality of an empire in decline. Is Putin’s profligacy hastening Russia’s nosedive?

Visitors who have braved the threat of terrorism and shelled out big bucks for airfare, hotels, and event tickets at the Sochi Olympics are getting something for their money: lavish ceremonies, world-class athletic competition, architecturally striking sporting venues, and spectacular vistas from the slopes. President Putin undoubtedly views the grandeur of these Olympics, by far the most costly in history, as a testimony to the greatness of Russia and a sign of its return to the commanding center of the international system. The irony is that Sochi reflects not what is great about Russia but much of what is fundamentally wrong with it.

The Sochi Olympics are emblematic of a perilous political distortion in Russia. Let’s call it “political magical realism,” after the literary technique used so successfully by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the political context, this approach entails evading problems by retreating into fantasy rather than finding solutions for them. Some of the hallmarks of this approach are President Putin’s highly publicized, thoroughly ridiculous staged feats of personal strength, underwater archaeology, and wildlife rescues. The policy manifestations of this approach are Russia’s grandiose domestic projects and manic international activities, highlighted by political subversion of the judiciary, anti-gay laws, the prosecution of political opponents, and electoral malfeasance. The country, including now a large and seething opposition, are thus left to face a bizarre mix of the repressive and the risible.

None of this is to deny that Russia has the potential to climb out of this morass. Blessed with enormous natural resources and a talented, well-educated population, it still has the ability to become a successful modern state. Note that this is not about superpower restoration—a Putinite delusion. (Russia’s well documented demographic problems preclude this.) Rather, it is about Russia’s potential to become another Japan or Germany.

Russia remains weighed down by an uncompetitive uni-dimensional economy whose only viable exports are energy and armaments. The Kremlin’s unconscionable waste of Russia’s entrepreneurial energy, scientific talent, and national wealth have left the country with a nominal GDP equivalent to Italy (but without its international competitiveness and diversity) and a per capita GDP approximating that of Barbados.

Corruption in Russia remains not only endemic, but cannibalistic. Business law offers little protection, particularly to foreign investors, and the outflow of funds usually far exceeds incoming capital and investments. Putin has centralized corruption rather than reducing it. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Russia 127th out of 174 countries.

Nonetheless Putin’s government continues to be driven by seemingly limitless domestic and international ambitions. With a stagnant economy that will likely come under increasing stress over the next few years, Russia is witnessing the yawning gap between the Kremlin’s unrestrained imperial ambitions and its true capacity transform into a treacherous gulf.

To be sure, Russia has enjoyed some seeming international successes. For example, Putin appears to have outmaneuvered President Obama and saved Russia’s Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. Moscow also succeeded in bullying Ukraine into dropping its promise to sign the (Eastern Partnership) association agreement with the European Union and setting out on a path to join the Russian controlled Eurasian (Customs) Union. But as with many things involving Russia, here too appearances are deceiving.

In Syria, the Russian-brokered chemical weapons agreement with Syria could be called a “one percent solution” (as 99 percent of those who have died have been killed by conventional weapons); the fighting continues unabated and the situation has grown more unstable over time. There is also continuing friction between Moscow and Washington over the Kremlin’s support for Iran, its pressure on Ukraine and over its apparent violation of the 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces. All of these may be coaxing the Obama Administration to take tougher measures against the Kremlin.

Further, Russian support for sordid dictatorships presents long-term risks—and not just risks to its reputation. In protecting the Iranian regime and thus facilitating its nuclear weapons ambitions, Moscow may find itself confronting a nuclear Iran whose missiles could just as easily reach the Russian capital as they could Israel. Associations with Belarus and support for Assad also impose heavy economic costs. In the case of Ukraine, the weakness and ineptness of the Yanukovych government could cause Russia’s expensive hegemonic plans there to unravel.

In light of all of these problems, the Sochi Olympics looks like nothing more than an absurdly lavish party, a fantasy that Russia can ill afford. After the Olympic torch goes dark and the euphoria of the games dissipates, the Kremlin will still have to face the cold reality of its failure to transform Russia into a modern state.

Aurel Braun is visiting professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He is also Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto. His latest book is NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century.
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  • Chris Zarwinski

    A few articles below is an article titled “Russia Kicks More Sand in Kerry’s Face at Syria Talks”. So my question is: If Russia is an “empire in decline”, what does that make The United States?

    • rheddles

      Led by incompetents but not in decline.

      • John Stephens

        Leadership in a Republic is reflection of it’s people.

        • rheddles

          Yup, they made the same mistake twice. But they have the capacity to learn.

  • Atanu Maulik

    Russian leaders are the ultimate masters of “self-containment.” For the past 1000 yrs, their cannibalistic policies have ensured that the nation with the largest resources on the planet always remain a B-grade nation.

  • Dave R

    Doesn’t take much talent to outmaneuver Obama. Obama is intellectually incurious, work shy, and primarily interested in avoiding personal or political responsibility.

  • Boritz

    This would have been a good brief for Bob Costas and NBC. They are not aware of this Russia and this Putin.

  • aseuss

    The author says Russia is like Italy “but without the diversity or international competitiveness.” Huh? Russia, with large groups that display central Asian origin–and with many people who display considerable Mongoloid admixture (and not just those in Russia’s Far East)–is ethnically diverse. A small but significant portion of the population are practicing Muslims (a larger portion than in the U.S.) As for competitiveness, Italy typically posts close to zero or negative quarterly growth, and only in the last quarter did it manage to push above zero. The author quotes the exodus of talented Russians, and here it shares a lot in common with Italy. I recently watched a documentary on science in Europe where an Italian molecular biologist, working in Stockholm, lamented the dearth of research opportunities in Italy and southern Europe (lack of funding, organization, etc.) Not to knock on Italy, but it’s not reasonable to highlight Russia’s problems by contrasting it with a country that actually shares many of those same issues.

    • Orson OLSON

      WRONG-“Russia is like Italy ‘but without the [ECONOMIC] diversity or international competitiveness.’ Huh?” I’d request a rewrite, but that means a re-read of the piece to actually comprehend it. Pass.

  • yesIDeeClaire

    Putin seems to have 10x the intelligence of our resident marxist agitator.

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