Middle Israel: Vladimir Putin and the end of history

On the face of it, this was the happy scene Westerners had dreamt of during the Cold War's worst years.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
They were celebrating again under Red Square's gentle snowfall the other day, this time to the ear-splitting sounds of a rock concert choreographed to contrast yesteryear's somber communist parades. Sporting a motorcyclist's black leather jacket and waving to thousands a-la Michael Jackson, Vladimir Putin, the man who ushered Russia into the new millennium, was handing the presidency over to his handpicked successor, one Dmitri Medvedev. On the face of it, this was the happy scene Westerners had dreamt of during the Cold War's worst years. In fact, the happening at Red Square was part of a horror show designed to conceal all that is foul about the post-Soviet era - for Russia, the West and the entire world. PUTIN, THE short, balding, soft-spoken and generally unlikely restorer of Russian power, prestige and cynicism has reason to look back - and ahead - with satisfaction. Eight years on, the economic basket-case he had inherited has a 7% annual growth rate, a per-capita product more than four times its pre-Putin level, and foreign-direct investment that just hit a record $28 billion. Meanwhile, fighting in Chechnya has subsided (leaving some 100,000 dead), a new consumerism is pervasive, and Russia's many neighbors and interlocutors, from Ukraine and Georgia to Latvia and Britain, have been reminded bluntly, each in its turn, that the Kremlin is no longer the drunkards' den for which some mistook it under the previous management. The outgoing president has even more reason to feel good, considering the universal acquiescence with his loudly announced intention to effectively continue ruling Russia, as prime minister. And here, of course, start the problems; for who will believe Medvedev's victory-speech promise to uphold the rule of law if he and his prime minister, by virtue of just being in their positions, embody the disparagement of their very constitution's spirit? Russia today is in many ways even more lawless than it was under communism, as crime - petty, organized and political - is rampant. Where electable rivals are disqualified from running for office - like in Iran - while outspoken businessmen get jailed and daring journalists get shot, it should come as no surprise that highway robbers rule some neighborhoods, gangs haunt entire marketplaces, and thugs often clutch whole industries. YES, THERE is a new affluence in Russia. Luxury cars, designer suits, glitzy casinos and well-stocked malls have long rendered the communist era's rhetoric, austerity and bread lines fading memories. Yet Russia's new prosperity is more complex than meets the eye. In fact, it may very well collapse thunderously in just a few years. Foreign investments, for instance, though at record levels, remain less than 3% of GDP, meaning that on the whole foreigners remain reluctant - not to say scared stiff - to touch Russia even with 10-foot poles. Worse yet, though foreign investments have grown, they usually go to mineral extraction, not to production of finished goods. In fact, during Putin's reign oil and gas production nearly trebled, from just over one-tenth to nearly a full third of the entire economy, and four-fifths of all exports. And though Putin initially capped government spending and ended the derelict printing of cash, last year - according to The Economist - the state bureaucracy expanded by more than 50% to 828,000 people, while government spending rose 20%. In short, while the Russians are benefitting from soaring oil prices, they are failing to use the seven plentiful years in order to become diversified and competitive come the seven bad years. And those can be counted on to arrive, one way or another. The symptoms of Russia's downturn are already budding. While inflation reached the teens and construction became dominant in economic activity, only 5% of businesses were established during Putin's rule. This means that driving, as Russia's exhibitionist nouveaux-riches do, easy-earned Bentleys and wearing precious mink coats, Versace suits and Rolex watches is one thing, but learning to invent, manufacture and market quality goods is another. And that Putin wouldn't encourage because it would require more freedom than he was prepared to grant. And so, nearly two decades after so many in a euphoric West celebrated "the end of history" - Russia is anything but free, whether politically, economically or spiritually. And it's all by design. PUTIN'S MAIN message has been that the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact, and even the arrival of former communist states in the EU and NATO, don't yet spell freedom's historic victory. Instead, the world has been introduced to a new authoritarianism, one which emulates the kind overseen a generation ago by Chile's Augusto Pinochet. However, back when it was cultivated in Latin America, this combination of political oppression and economic freedom posed no threat to Western power or dogma. Russia is a different matter. Under Putin, the world's largest country, with its military might and mineral riches, has come to spearhead the counter-revolution no one saw coming in the heady days when the Berlin Wall fell. The counter-democratic international today comprises China's quasi-communists, Russia's proto-capitalists and the Middle East's assorted fundamentalists. While there are differences among them - the Islamists think that we're infidels, the Russians that we're idiots, and the Chinese don't care what we think - they also share a cause, which is to actively obstruct democracy's advance. Now, having contained the totalitarian collapse in 1989, this newly confident cabal is on the counterattack. It is now nearly 19 years since Francis Fukuyama emerged with his memorable thesis "The End of History" in the opinion journal The National Interest. Incidentally, the article was published a good several months before the fall of the wall, reflecting a universal conclusion, following Gorbachev's unilateral announcement at the UN, that the USSR will adopt a defensive posture and drastically cut its European military presence. Fukuyama's conclusion was that the world was witnessing "an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism." The bad news is that judging by what we are witnessing now, Fukuyama was a bit too euphoric. The good news is that in the upcoming years Russia and the rest of the counter-democrats will learn, the hard way, that their illusion of oppressive wealth can only last as long as Rome's. That is also when liberty will have its next opportunity to conquer several more tiles in Red Square.