Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia as a failed state

I make no apology for maintaining a string of posts on the subject of Russia. The fact is that Putin's mafia state, nuclear armed as it is, poses an existential threat to the freedom and prosperity of the West and to the peace of the whole world. Russian-sponsored brutality in Ukraine, now thrown into sharp relief by the appalling mass killing of flight MH17, should disgust all civilised human beings.

The initial shock of that act of barbarism may be wearing off somewhat, but its place is emerging a whole variety of questions. From "how could they do this?" has emerged another question: "What does Russia want?", yet as it becomes clear how disconnected and incompetent the Putin regime has become, and even bigger question is emerging: "Can Russia survive?"

At first glance, such a question may seem to be simply absurd, or to play into the hands of the most paranoid Putinista. Yet, the scale of the human rights breakdown under Putin is now so complete, it is legitimate to ask, in the twenty-first century, "if Russia has such a warped structure that it simply can not be a free society, should the country even continue to exist?"

For there is little doubt, that even without the 14 other Soviet Republics, Post Soviet Russia remains an Empire both in fact and in spirit. For example, there are over 185 different national groups, speaking over 100 native languages in the Russian Federation, of which 27 have some official status, although only Russian is designated as the state language. Although Russification, official and unofficial, has continued, the percentage of the population that is ethnically Russian is in steady decline- Russia is growing more diverse and not less. 

That goes for the economy too. Many people, used to the glitz and obvious wealth of Moscow and St. Petersburg can be totally shocked by the contrast, not merely with the seedy and run down state of most other cities, but the dire poverty that exists even in the rural areas close to the capital. Russia has one of the largest wealth gaps ever seen in human history, with brutal poverty literally within sight of the richest individuals on the planet. But such astonishing inequality is the result, not of entrepreneurial graft, but of the capture of the natural resources of the country by a self-selected criminal class. Rent seeking and exploitation are the watch words of this mafia, and it has crushed the vast bulk of the population. The creative and intelligent class are driven to the margin or seek better lives outside the stultifying control of the Kremlin propaganda machine.

The last imperial state, stretching over huge tracts of land, Russia has not been able to deliver its people the prosperity that possession of more land, more gold, more energy, more agricultural land would seem to imply. In fact, it is the reverse, Russian leaders have found it impossible to create a coherent political entity without recourse to a brutal level of violence.

The result of such oppression is a nation of slaves. 

In short, as Max Skibinsky- himself a leading light in one of the most creative places on the planet, Silicon Valley- says in a somber and thoughtful blog, it may well be that Russia as a meaningful social concept has going beyond the event horizon. That in the world that is opening up through technological exchange, Russia in its current form simply has no place. Even if states survive the impact of anarcho-technology, then Russian political primitivism means it can not be one of those states.

I am slightly less pessimistic than that: after all in 1946, German militarism was deemed to be so ingrained into the character of the German state that the Morgenthau plan proposed not merely the dismantling of the political state, but the dismantling of all industrial capacity, so that Germans could only be ostensibly peaceful Yeoman farmers. In fact Germany has emerged as a powerful industrial economy and an admirable democracy.

Yet Germany, of course, has had little choice but to address the horrors of the Hitler years directly. The second defeat gave Germany no option but to change, and change radically. In a way, one might argue that Russia, has been defeated in the Cold War, but not defeated enough. Putin, as Hitler, has been able to claim that Russia was not defeated in the Cold War, but was betrayed. This "Stab in the back" thesis has allowed Russia to evade the moral responsibility for the hideous crimes of Stalin- and it is surely a moral crisis that has allowed the pillage of Russia by the mafia around Putin to continue unchecked. The logic of this argument would be that the West should restore the Cold War policies of containment and slowly strangle the Russian state until they too have no choice but to come to terms.

The problem with this argument is that fighting the previous war may not allow us to recognise the still greater challenges in Asia until it is too late. Although Putin crows about his relationship with China, it is a huge blunder for him to imagine that a resurgent China is anything but a powerful threat to Russia in northern Asia. Yet he is a mediocre mind, and as the disaster in Ukraine now shows, a deeply irresponsible one too.

Living in Estonia, I am surrounded by many of what Max Skibinsky, in a happy phrase, calls Euro-Slavs. These Evro-Russky with their acculturation to democratic and free market norms may yet prove to be a vital resource in the resurrection of the democratic and open minded Russian traditions that have stayed dormant since the burning of Novgorod in 1570

Maybe, one day, it is not too fanciful to think of a new Russia, perhaps with its capital in Ancient Novgorod, rather than Czarist St Petersburg or Stalinist Moscow, emerging, like the Bonn Republic of Germany and finally seeking to heal the moral wounds that beset Russia like a cloud of mosquitoes.  


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