Daily Archives: May 21, 2007

Essel on Russian "History"

History for Russians by Russians
A View of the World in a Fairground Distorting Mirrorby Dave Essel

Introduction

History is a funny thing. At war, one country’s victory is another’s defeat. In an age of mind-deadening political correctness, the question has been raised in France as to whether it is right for the London end of the Channel Tunnel line to terminate at Waterloo Station. There is still time for brain dead politically correct Austrians, Russians, and Brits to call for the renaming of Paris’ Gare d’Austerlitz. I was partially educated in French schools, in which I was frequently referred to as the ‘sale Anglais’; when I went to continue my schooling in England, I instantly became the ‘filthy Frog’. It’s all relative, it’s all in the past, and most of the time it’s fun and a good lesson in life. Behind relativity lie facts and one can strive to order them, understand them, and interpret and re-interpret them as our understanding and knowledge grows. If done with probity, this is a good and useful thing. Proper historians, and others such as serious journalists, can usefully revue and reassemble the known facts with a view to making historiographical and psychological sense of the past and this becomes a useful lead-in to the present.

These concepts are platitudes because they are universally accepted: an understanding of the past is a good thing because it makes it possible to comprehend the present and, one hopes, create a better future; nations who do not make a point of recording and studying their past are condemned to a vicious circle of repetitions of previous mistakes; nations that deliberately create lies about the past for propaganda purposes are always fascists of the right or left and will only make things worse for themselves in the long run.

One can therefore group countries by the general attitude within them towards their history and the wider world’s. Some continually try to gather more and more factual information in order to gain an ever better level of understanding, some are nonchalant, and some deliberately distort what little they know today in pursuit of momentary political aims and to hell with the future consequences. It comes as no surprise of course that Russia stands firmly in the third group. This is a country which has not come to historiographical terms with Tsarism, with its revolution of 1917, with its Civil War and the manufactured famines of collectivisation, with its archipelago of injustice, and with its long-delayed ‘bourgeois revolution’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With no serious examination of its history, it can only be expected – in fact it can be guaranteed – that the absence of such understanding will lead to Russia selecting its course more or less at random since it does not know at any one time where it is coming from. The consequences of such will be generally negative, bar a few lucky exceptions, due to lack of control. If to this mixture one adds deliberate lies about the past in response to party political aims of the day, one can safely predict that the consequences of actions based on them will practically without fail be severely negative as such actions will not have been grounded in historiographical or psychological reality.

The Soviet Union created just such a historical wonderland, managed to keep the fantasy bubble going for a short while (though it was costly to the three or four generations who paid to keep it going), and then it burst.

Now there is evidence that the new Russia is working on creating yet another bubble. Living in it is bound to hurt a lot of people and when it bursts…

A journal called Nashe Vremya

Your frogman in Russia’s printed sewage has come across in his explorations for LR a journal called Nashe Vremya, subtitled the No.1 analytical journal, the current issue of which seems to be dedicated to Estonia and general denigration of the Baltic republics. Googling it did not help much. It has been coming out for a year and has a slick website and and is hosted on fast servers. The only information about the journal available on the site is that is published by OOO Nashe Vremya Publishers, Moscow address and phone number, Editor-in-Chief Russian Gorevoi. VZGLYAD reprints articles from it and links to it. VZGLYAD is linked from Komsomolka. In an attempt to clarify whether it is a rich hate-sheet of no real import or something more significant, I phoned the editorial offices and asked where it was for sale. A pleasant Russian politely told me it was easily available in Moscow and other major Russian cities and, in reply to my question, told me the circulation is 50000. To understand the scale of this, the circulation of Russian Newsweek is 50000 as well. It would seem therefore that Nashe Vremya is more than just a hate-sheet and is a real actor in the drive to poison Russian minds.

Nashe Vremya’s inclinations are seriously fascist. This week’s issue headlines the following articles: Estonia Flings history on the Rubbish Dump, Holocaust: Whether You Went to Treblinka or Palestine Was Decided in the Ghetto; Anti-Terror: Did the English Secret Services Supply the Inaccurate Lead About Forthcoming Terrorist Actions? … This article below, however, is a real curiosity: it appears to be, if one assumes the sanity of the author, a Russian chauvinist White-Guardist piece.

Translator’s Note: When translating, I find it immeasurably harder to translate nonsense and speciousness than to translate serious texts. In the absence of logical flow, meaning, if any, has to be teased out of verbiage and this is sometimes not easy. I apologise if the translation below does not flow nicely. Translatability is a good test, in my view, of whether something has been well written. (For a positive example, most articles in The Economist can usually be read out loud in Russian with barely a pause for thought.) The article below is scatter-brained, laced with insinuendo (not my coinage but a nice word), and is great fun for deconstructors since it is in the language of an unconscious racist and fascist. For some the flavour of great-Russian chauvinism will be enough. For those who want decipher the author’s cherry-picking of historical facts, more realistic outlines can be found here and here. Even if you are a total moral relativist (not likely in the case of LR readers) and think that history is no more than a battle of presentations, the Estonians win hands down.

Delirium is Not A Virtue
The Baltic’s Historical Guilt Before Russia

Yelena Chudinova Nashe Vremya

We Russians are not vindictive. That is nice and not objectionable. By our lack of vindictiveness we show the world that we are at heart Christian, even if we have dived into atheism and pagan superstition. However, it is very important to see clearly the line dividing forgivingness and forgetfulness. Because the latter is not a virtue.

Small but proud Latvia has decided to present us with a bill for our “occupation’ amounting to a round sum of about 50 times in annual budget. This may sound funny but our historical recollection differs somewhat.

Separate Betrayal

“It was the Bolsheviks who ceded the territory to us and gave us independence,” it was objected to me during a recent debate. “We are a small country and need to look out for ourselves.”

Our media have on numerous occasions raised the issue of the bestial crimes committed by the fascist veterans parading their 3rd Reich medals down streets where old men wearing the medals of the victors over fascism are beaten up and dragged into prison for so doing. Much has been said about double standards, about how the EC on the one hand publicly slapped Prince William for wearing a masquerade Nazi uniform with a swastika armband and at the same time is blind to far from playful Nazi demonstrations in which official figures have taken part. It is right to bring such things up. But it is sad that facts about events that took place just a couple of decades earlier – a mere moment ago in historical terms – do not get mentioned.

An Estonian journalist once asked Putin – why do you Russians not accept the blame for the occupation so that we can get over it and live in friendship thereafter? The president referred that personage, who had been speaking in perfect Russian, to documents dating back some fifteen years. Here, however, I will provide the answer in a different way.

Strange as this may sound to Estonians, they had (oh, the shock of it!) their own communists, although they were so feeble that without our North Western Army, the Estonians would not have been able in 1919 to defend the town of Revel from the Estonian Workers’ Commune. That was in January, however. While home-grown Estonian expropriators were rushing about wildly looking for things to expropriate, relations between the NWA, which was based in Estonia, and the Estonians were perfectly happy. Not fraternal, obviously, but happy enough. Estonia wanted not only military cooperation from the NWA but also a guarantee of independence. But how can a military command consider itself as having the authority to hand over land belonging to the crown? It’s our job to fight, drive out the Reds, and let the Estonians sort out their issues with the legitimate government. Had the NWA folk but known! But you were not Estonians, you were Russian officers, men of honour. You would not have it in you to deceive, even if you had known what lay ahead.

The Estonians bided their time for their stab in the back until autumn 1919, just before the nearly successful advance of the NWA into Petrograd. The retreat, historians emphasise, was by no means a catastrophe. The army just needed to rest, regroup, and at the same time relocate to safer parts some 40000 civilian refugees, in non-military terms their wives, children, sisters, elderly parents and others in fear of the Red Terror. The Army withdrew under heavy fighting, taking losses but weakening the Reds as well. Then suddenly the NWA found that access to its own supplies in the rear was being denied; it was being prevented from crossing the Narova River.

The 7th Red Army on Trotsky’s orders thrice attacked Narva and was thrice flung back from the city by the NWA. They had no idea that the Estonians, behind the backs of their defenders, were preparing a criminal compact with the Reds. This eternally shameful act of Estonia’s is called the 1920 Peace Treaty of Tartu between the RSFSR and Estonia in Soviet history books [TN – what the author cannot bring herself to mention are the key words of this treaty which says inter alia that Russian relinquishes “forever its rights of sovereignty over the Estonian people and country’]. The more blood the Russians shed for Narva, the better Estonia’s betrayal would work out. The plot began on 5 December and the Red’s last attempt to force the Narova took place on 17 December. After this, Chicherin sent an order from Moscow to the Soviet delegates to make territorial concessions to Estonia: a large chunk of territory around Pskov and along the Narova (with a population of 60000 ethnic Russians into the bargain) – the very territories that the freedom-loving Estonians tried to gyp [sic] the Russians out of in the 1990s and which are shown as Estonia on Estonian school maps.

The Reds stopped attacking but of course could not go anywhere. Where was there for the White defenders of Estonia to go? Across the Narova. On the far bank there was nothing for them: their belongings –1000 wagons of provisions, clothes, medicines, ammunition, personal effects – had all been expropriated by General Laidoner for the benefit of the newborn Estonian republic. Once over the Narova, the NWA was disarmed, any good greatcoats taken off their backs, and gold such as crosses ripped from around their necks. What could they do: resist? They had brought their own hostages in the form of wives and children with them.

“But the Bolsheviks ceded the territory to us and gave us our independence,” someone objected during a recent debate. “We’re a small nation and had to do what we could for ourselves.” Fine, my dear little friends, I said then and say again now. You have successfully assumed the morality of the prison-camps – “You die today and I’ll die tomorrow”. To put it in terms of a children’s story, since you were so small, you said to the big bad wolf “Don’t eat me, eat him”. But any terms set with a big bad wolf don’t last long. You helped feed the communist flame. That system then grew up. Twenty years later, it wanted to eat you up and that time you didn’t have any one to feed it instead of yourselves. So who should be apologising to you?! Those who occupied you?! You occupied yourselves twenty years before the occupation when you robbed us, your defenders, of our boots and wedding rings!

You occupied yourselves when you pedantically fulfilled all the articles of the criminal treaty with the Bolsheviks! The NWA was to be reduced to nothing – and that was done. Because, besides territory, you were also given something else – 15 million in gold. What for, can you say? For Russian blood. The disarmed and robbed NWA was denied right of movement about the republic, slaved at forced labour in slate quarries, or was driven into concentration camps such as the one at Paeskjul [TN: transliterated from the Russian]. It was forbidden to give employment to Russian officers. So they were unable to feed themselves in Estonia, nor were they allowed to leave. This was total annihilation, payment in exchange for Judas’ silver. The killing of a Russian officer was not always considered worthy even of a fine.

Of course, all this was done with a backward glance, a permanent backward glance at the current “elder brother”. Some small nations are always in desperate need of a strong back behind which they can indulge their baseness. More recently it was Hitler, then it was the Entente with Great Britain at its head.

Estonians, if you had not betrayed your alliances, you would of course not have been handed your independence on a plate. But 20 years later you would then also not have ridden the cattle wagons to Siberia. Some 50 years after that, you would have been able to gyp [sic, again] yourselves independence though some sort of civilised referendum. The main thing is that decent people only make agreements on any subject whatsoever with legitimate authorities. So you have no one to blame. But we should at long last blame you – for Petrograd, which would probably have been taken if Estonia had honoured its obligations to its allies; for the annihilation of the NWA; for the war taking a wrong turn; and finally, for Soviet power.

Some will object that Soviet power came about not just because of our defeat on the North-Western front. That’s true. And that means it is time to talk about Latvia.

[TN: we skip a similar long tirade about the horrid Latvians and move straight to the conclusion]

No better than peasants

It is natural and quite understable how Germanophobes of the first half of the 20th century – Estonian and Latvian – should rush to join the battalions of the SS. A slave always thinks his current master is horrid. Much more attractive is a master who may only possibly become so and who furthermore dangles some carrots and even offers an opportunity to get one’s own back against the former master. Whether they really believed that the Germans would let them have some sort of independence is immaterial but the idea of becoming overseers over Russians was just too tempting. Let Russian, Byelorussians, Jews and Gypsies be burnt by the tens of thousands in crematoria, let children be murdered, “let’s you die today, I won’t even die tomorrow.” I’m an Ostdeutsch, I’m semi-human!

Estonia and Latvia were practically never states, they were always under someone. These nations did not even have a nobility of their own [i.e a ruling élite – NV Editor’s note].

It might seem that there is not much sense in mentioning such a thing today when the nobility have been pushed out by a moneyed élite. However, nations which have not in their past had a nobility are a little like a person who has entered adulthood straight from childhood, bypassing adolescence. Some connections have been made wrong in his brain; he’s not completely au fait; he needs supervision, not to say care. For this reason it is pointless to try to argue with Estonians or Latvians, pointless to try to convince them of anything, pointless to call on their conscience. When I seem to address them, it’s purely rhetorical. The Estonian and the Latvian can be a decent an honest person, but he has no historical conscience. It just does not exist in him. He possesses an atrophied organ of historical shame.

The only language that our neighbour understands iss that of sanctions and harsh policies with no concessions. A proper understanding of our common past provides moral support to us in this. Most of the facts given in this article are easily available, having been published in periodicals, books, and the internet. But why is it that not a single one of these facts was mentioned by any government spokesman with regard to the revolting scandals about our May 9 celebrations?

The mind of yesterday’s genetic peasant views any concession as weakness. And, as in 1919, behind these uppity peasants stand states who do not wish us particularly well. A show of political will is not only a matter of historical remembrance but a matter of survival. And we do want to survive, don’t we?

Aron on Russia’s Succession Crisis

Resident Scholar Leon Aron (pictured below) of the American Enterprise Institute describes Russia’s coming “succession crisis”:

Resident Scholar Leon Aron

After Boris Yeltsin died on April 23, all Russian television networks waited for almost three hours to break the news. They were afraid to say anything before the Kremlin did. Three days later, in the state-of-Russia address to the Duma, Vladimir Putin announced the unilateral “suspension” by Russia of the 1990 treaty governing the size and positioning of conventional forces in Europe. A few days before, an estimated 4,000 policemen set upon a few hundred protesters in Moscow with a ferocity that shocked even some government officials and legislators.

Even by the standards of Mr. Putin’s Russia, these episodes stand apart in the shrillness of their authoritarian insolence and disregard for public opinion inside and outside the country. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for talks, she might see for herself the reason for the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, and the increasingly harsh climate inside: the jitters that next year’s presidential succession is already generating in the Kremlin.

Despite an official propaganda barrage daily proclaiming orderly change after the presidential election in March 2008, the succession is far from a done deal. The erosion or outright eradication of what might be called shock-absorbers of democracy that endow the process and the result of a transition with legitimacy–elected local authorities, independent parliament and mass media, and genuine opposition–has ushered in uncertainty and risk. The foundation of the much-touted “vertical of power,” as the new system of the Kremlin’s dominance over the country’s politics and key sectors of the economy is known, is shallow. The stairs going down are gnarled and perhaps unable to bear much weight.

To these generic handicaps to succession in an authoritarian regime, today’s Russia adds two serious complications. The first is the tradition of Russian and Soviet political culture–which Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin tried so hard to overcome, but which Mr. Putin (who has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”) seems to admire and emulate. Successions were hardly smooth even under the tsars, with quite a few legitimate claimants to the throne (or even those already sitting on it by right) strangled, drowned, stabbed or forced to retire into monasteries. In the Soviet era, not one putative heir apparent came to power. Lenin never wished for Stalin to succeed him; Stalin would not have wanted Khrushchev; Khrushchev, ousted by a coup, did not anoint Brezhnev; Brezhnev, Andropov; Andropov, Chernenko; and Chernenko, Gorbachev.

The other obstacle to a smooth transition is the sheer enormity of the stakes. Even after the centuries of the patrimonial state, in which political power has translated into ownership or control of much of the country’s natural wealth, never has the jackpot been so huge: Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year.

No matter how many promises are being made to presidential hopefuls and their salivating retinues about sharing in the riches, the vertical of power is a sparse, even austere piece of political architecture. There are simply not enough top rent-generating offices in Russian politics, and in the daily expanding state-controlled sector of the economy, to be handed over to all current claimants: not enough Duma committee chairmanships (where the going rate for introducing a law reportedly is $1 million), regional governorships, top positions in the extremely lucrative tax police and customs, company chairmanships and directorships in the oil, gas, metals, armaments, automotive and aviation industries.

In the winner-take-all regime Mr. Putin has forged, his probable decision to hand over the power hardly presages a period of certainty and tranquility. In the words of one of the most astute Russian political observers, Mark Urnov, “those who have failed to become heirs will have nothing to lose. The bets have been placed, the only thing to do is to fight.”

There are no lame ducks in Putin’s Russia–only dead ones. Thus, the appointment of the successor must be withheld for as long as possible, to prevent those passed over from coalescing and perhaps even reaching out to the pro-democracy opposition. Such an alliance would be the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a potentially escalating popular movement for unmanaged, free and fair elections, akin to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05. The succession games may last well into this fall, and one could do worse, investment-wise, than betting a modest amount in rubles, steadily appreciating against the dollar, that neither of the current front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, will get the nod.

Yet managing the succession by keeping the elites off balance is only one source of the Kremlin’s nervousness. The other is a slew of potential economic and social crises stemming from subverted, frozen or entirely abandoned structural reforms to redress the commodity dependence, the neglect of “human capital” and the disrepair of the worn-out industrial infrastructure. Camouflaged by the oil wealth and passed over in silence by the re-nationalized or intimidated mass media, these political time bombs are ticking louder and louder.

Despite regular, almost-ritual official calls to shift away from commodity exports to a knowledge-based, high-tech modern economy, the goal has been subverted by the ideologically-motivated turn toward greater state control and the fear of private initiative and wealth-creation. Instead, Russia’s expanding economy (and thus the “stability” on which Putin’s popularity is founded) remains extremely vulnerable to oil-price fluctuations. At least one-third of the Russian state budget today comes from oil revenues. A World Bank study has concluded that the GDP growth of 5% or higher was “realized in Russia only at times when the oil price has increased.” It is widely assumed among independent Russian experts that a precipitous decline to $40 a barrel (not to mention, below) will have immediate and profoundly negative consequences for economy and the standard of living.

Apart from much-needed salary increases for teachers and doctors, the “national projects” on health and education, unveiled by the government with great fanfare in 2005, have done very little to reform the state-based, impoverished, rigid and backward health-care and education systems inherited from the Soviet Union. Amid the oil price boom, Russia spent less on health-care as percentage of GDP in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) than in the first year of the fragile post-Soviet economic recovery in 1997. In an August 2006 national survey, 70% of respondents said that they and their families could not count on getting “good” medical care.

The hydrocarbon windfall has done nothing to increase life expectancy, which at 65 years is still below that of China or India. Russia also is a world leader in industrial, aviation and traffic accidents. Crime is rising; over the past six years, there has been a 10% increase in the number of murders and a 73% rise in drug-related crimes.

With the number of working adults, especially males, diminishing precipitously, the worker-to-retiree ratio is estimated by Russia’s leading economists to drop to 1 to 1 “in the very near future.” Yet already today, the average pension is 25% of the average salary–the lowest proportion in Europe. Such a pension is 3,000 rubles ($115), whereas the minimal food expenditures (“just not to starve” as a Russian newspaper puts it) is 1,500 rubles. Some in the government have already begun to talk about raising the pension age as the only solution–something that the estimated 17 million men and women who expect to retire in the next 10 years are most likely to resent and protest, perhaps violently.

Yet the dwindling number of Russians who want to work and make a go of it are daily disheartened and handicapped by corruption. Both in its reach and the amount of money involved, the bribery and sleaze today makes the graft of the 1990s look like the child’s play. In the ranking by Transparency International Russia is 121st out of 163 countries, behind Albania, Kazakhstan and Zambia, and on a par with Benin, Gambia, Honduras and Rwanda. The growing independence of courts, one of the most promising achievements of the 1990s, has been reversed by the travesty of the Yukos-Khodorkovsky and spy trials. Not just entrepreneurs, who are now fair game for shakedowns, but even ordinary Russians, are less and less capable of seeking protection in courts against rapacious and incompetent bureaucrats at every level.

Nor is the Russian state capable of providing broad and effective protection in a more immediate sense. While Chechnya is for now “pacified” by the former Islamic guerillas who switched sides, the multi-ethnic North Caucasus is virtually ungovernable, especially its largest “autonomous republic,” Dagestan. The conventional armed forces are utterly incapable of dealing with new threats. A dysfunctional relic of the tsarist and Soviet past, for today’s conscripts the Russian army is a combination of a prison and torture chamber.

With every family doing everything they can to shield their boys from the army, increasingly it is the bottom of the barrel that the army gets: the functionally illiterate and those with criminal records or a history of drug addiction. There is more than enough money to effect a transition to a modern, lean, mobile, well-equipped, well-trained and motivated force, supported by millions of Russians. President Putin himself promised in the beginning of his first term, but the reform has been abandoned.

Each of these simmering crises may quickly boil over. The prospect of several unfolding in concert is troubling. In combination with falling oil prices, they may cause a political equivalent of a “perfect storm.” Yet with the deliberate weakening of the mediating institutions of democracy, the center of political gravity in Putin’s Russia has shifted to the very top, making the Kremlin responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the country.

Everything that the Russian authorities do in the next 12 months will be informed by this sense of vulnerability, and aimed at making sure that vagaries of succession are not multiplied or even made unmanageable by the corrupt state’s obsessive quest for control in pursuit of ever greater share of the country’s oil wealth.

Aron on Russia’s Succession Crisis

Resident Scholar Leon Aron (pictured below) of the American Enterprise Institute describes Russia’s coming “succession crisis”:

Resident Scholar Leon Aron

After Boris Yeltsin died on April 23, all Russian television networks waited for almost three hours to break the news. They were afraid to say anything before the Kremlin did. Three days later, in the state-of-Russia address to the Duma, Vladimir Putin announced the unilateral “suspension” by Russia of the 1990 treaty governing the size and positioning of conventional forces in Europe. A few days before, an estimated 4,000 policemen set upon a few hundred protesters in Moscow with a ferocity that shocked even some government officials and legislators.

Even by the standards of Mr. Putin’s Russia, these episodes stand apart in the shrillness of their authoritarian insolence and disregard for public opinion inside and outside the country. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for talks, she might see for herself the reason for the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, and the increasingly harsh climate inside: the jitters that next year’s presidential succession is already generating in the Kremlin.

Despite an official propaganda barrage daily proclaiming orderly change after the presidential election in March 2008, the succession is far from a done deal. The erosion or outright eradication of what might be called shock-absorbers of democracy that endow the process and the result of a transition with legitimacy–elected local authorities, independent parliament and mass media, and genuine opposition–has ushered in uncertainty and risk. The foundation of the much-touted “vertical of power,” as the new system of the Kremlin’s dominance over the country’s politics and key sectors of the economy is known, is shallow. The stairs going down are gnarled and perhaps unable to bear much weight.

To these generic handicaps to succession in an authoritarian regime, today’s Russia adds two serious complications. The first is the tradition of Russian and Soviet political culture–which Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin tried so hard to overcome, but which Mr. Putin (who has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”) seems to admire and emulate. Successions were hardly smooth even under the tsars, with quite a few legitimate claimants to the throne (or even those already sitting on it by right) strangled, drowned, stabbed or forced to retire into monasteries. In the Soviet era, not one putative heir apparent came to power. Lenin never wished for Stalin to succeed him; Stalin would not have wanted Khrushchev; Khrushchev, ousted by a coup, did not anoint Brezhnev; Brezhnev, Andropov; Andropov, Chernenko; and Chernenko, Gorbachev.

The other obstacle to a smooth transition is the sheer enormity of the stakes. Even after the centuries of the patrimonial state, in which political power has translated into ownership or control of much of the country’s natural wealth, never has the jackpot been so huge: Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year.

No matter how many promises are being made to presidential hopefuls and their salivating retinues about sharing in the riches, the vertical of power is a sparse, even austere piece of political architecture. There are simply not enough top rent-generating offices in Russian politics, and in the daily expanding state-controlled sector of the economy, to be handed over to all current claimants: not enough Duma committee chairmanships (where the going rate for introducing a law reportedly is $1 million), regional governorships, top positions in the extremely lucrative tax police and customs, company chairmanships and directorships in the oil, gas, metals, armaments, automotive and aviation industries.

In the winner-take-all regime Mr. Putin has forged, his probable decision to hand over the power hardly presages a period of certainty and tranquility. In the words of one of the most astute Russian political observers, Mark Urnov, “those who have failed to become heirs will have nothing to lose. The bets have been placed, the only thing to do is to fight.”

There are no lame ducks in Putin’s Russia–only dead ones. Thus, the appointment of the successor must be withheld for as long as possible, to prevent those passed over from coalescing and perhaps even reaching out to the pro-democracy opposition. Such an alliance would be the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a potentially escalating popular movement for unmanaged, free and fair elections, akin to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05. The succession games may last well into this fall, and one could do worse, investment-wise, than betting a modest amount in rubles, steadily appreciating against the dollar, that neither of the current front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, will get the nod.

Yet managing the succession by keeping the elites off balance is only one source of the Kremlin’s nervousness. The other is a slew of potential economic and social crises stemming from subverted, frozen or entirely abandoned structural reforms to redress the commodity dependence, the neglect of “human capital” and the disrepair of the worn-out industrial infrastructure. Camouflaged by the oil wealth and passed over in silence by the re-nationalized or intimidated mass media, these political time bombs are ticking louder and louder.

Despite regular, almost-ritual official calls to shift away from commodity exports to a knowledge-based, high-tech modern economy, the goal has been subverted by the ideologically-motivated turn toward greater state control and the fear of private initiative and wealth-creation. Instead, Russia’s expanding economy (and thus the “stability” on which Putin’s popularity is founded) remains extremely vulnerable to oil-price fluctuations. At least one-third of the Russian state budget today comes from oil revenues. A World Bank study has concluded that the GDP growth of 5% or higher was “realized in Russia only at times when the oil price has increased.” It is widely assumed among independent Russian experts that a precipitous decline to $40 a barrel (not to mention, below) will have immediate and profoundly negative consequences for economy and the standard of living.

Apart from much-needed salary increases for teachers and doctors, the “national projects” on health and education, unveiled by the government with great fanfare in 2005, have done very little to reform the state-based, impoverished, rigid and backward health-care and education systems inherited from the Soviet Union. Amid the oil price boom, Russia spent less on health-care as percentage of GDP in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) than in the first year of the fragile post-Soviet economic recovery in 1997. In an August 2006 national survey, 70% of respondents said that they and their families could not count on getting “good” medical care.

The hydrocarbon windfall has done nothing to increase life expectancy, which at 65 years is still below that of China or India. Russia also is a world leader in industrial, aviation and traffic accidents. Crime is rising; over the past six years, there has been a 10% increase in the number of murders and a 73% rise in drug-related crimes.

With the number of working adults, especially males, diminishing precipitously, the worker-to-retiree ratio is estimated by Russia’s leading economists to drop to 1 to 1 “in the very near future.” Yet already today, the average pension is 25% of the average salary–the lowest proportion in Europe. Such a pension is 3,000 rubles ($115), whereas the minimal food expenditures (“just not to starve” as a Russian newspaper puts it) is 1,500 rubles. Some in the government have already begun to talk about raising the pension age as the only solution–something that the estimated 17 million men and women who expect to retire in the next 10 years are most likely to resent and protest, perhaps violently.

Yet the dwindling number of Russians who want to work and make a go of it are daily disheartened and handicapped by corruption. Both in its reach and the amount of money involved, the bribery and sleaze today makes the graft of the 1990s look like the child’s play. In the ranking by Transparency International Russia is 121st out of 163 countries, behind Albania, Kazakhstan and Zambia, and on a par with Benin, Gambia, Honduras and Rwanda. The growing independence of courts, one of the most promising achievements of the 1990s, has been reversed by the travesty of the Yukos-Khodorkovsky and spy trials. Not just entrepreneurs, who are now fair game for shakedowns, but even ordinary Russians, are less and less capable of seeking protection in courts against rapacious and incompetent bureaucrats at every level.

Nor is the Russian state capable of providing broad and effective protection in a more immediate sense. While Chechnya is for now “pacified” by the former Islamic guerillas who switched sides, the multi-ethnic North Caucasus is virtually ungovernable, especially its largest “autonomous republic,” Dagestan. The conventional armed forces are utterly incapable of dealing with new threats. A dysfunctional relic of the tsarist and Soviet past, for today’s conscripts the Russian army is a combination of a prison and torture chamber.

With every family doing everything they can to shield their boys from the army, increasingly it is the bottom of the barrel that the army gets: the functionally illiterate and those with criminal records or a history of drug addiction. There is more than enough money to effect a transition to a modern, lean, mobile, well-equipped, well-trained and motivated force, supported by millions of Russians. President Putin himself promised in the beginning of his first term, but the reform has been abandoned.

Each of these simmering crises may quickly boil over. The prospect of several unfolding in concert is troubling. In combination with falling oil prices, they may cause a political equivalent of a “perfect storm.” Yet with the deliberate weakening of the mediating institutions of democracy, the center of political gravity in Putin’s Russia has shifted to the very top, making the Kremlin responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the country.

Everything that the Russian authorities do in the next 12 months will be informed by this sense of vulnerability, and aimed at making sure that vagaries of succession are not multiplied or even made unmanageable by the corrupt state’s obsessive quest for control in pursuit of ever greater share of the country’s oil wealth.

Aron on Russia’s Succession Crisis

Resident Scholar Leon Aron (pictured below) of the American Enterprise Institute describes Russia’s coming “succession crisis”:

Resident Scholar Leon Aron

After Boris Yeltsin died on April 23, all Russian television networks waited for almost three hours to break the news. They were afraid to say anything before the Kremlin did. Three days later, in the state-of-Russia address to the Duma, Vladimir Putin announced the unilateral “suspension” by Russia of the 1990 treaty governing the size and positioning of conventional forces in Europe. A few days before, an estimated 4,000 policemen set upon a few hundred protesters in Moscow with a ferocity that shocked even some government officials and legislators.

Even by the standards of Mr. Putin’s Russia, these episodes stand apart in the shrillness of their authoritarian insolence and disregard for public opinion inside and outside the country. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for talks, she might see for herself the reason for the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, and the increasingly harsh climate inside: the jitters that next year’s presidential succession is already generating in the Kremlin.

Despite an official propaganda barrage daily proclaiming orderly change after the presidential election in March 2008, the succession is far from a done deal. The erosion or outright eradication of what might be called shock-absorbers of democracy that endow the process and the result of a transition with legitimacy–elected local authorities, independent parliament and mass media, and genuine opposition–has ushered in uncertainty and risk. The foundation of the much-touted “vertical of power,” as the new system of the Kremlin’s dominance over the country’s politics and key sectors of the economy is known, is shallow. The stairs going down are gnarled and perhaps unable to bear much weight.

To these generic handicaps to succession in an authoritarian regime, today’s Russia adds two serious complications. The first is the tradition of Russian and Soviet political culture–which Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin tried so hard to overcome, but which Mr. Putin (who has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”) seems to admire and emulate. Successions were hardly smooth even under the tsars, with quite a few legitimate claimants to the throne (or even those already sitting on it by right) strangled, drowned, stabbed or forced to retire into monasteries. In the Soviet era, not one putative heir apparent came to power. Lenin never wished for Stalin to succeed him; Stalin would not have wanted Khrushchev; Khrushchev, ousted by a coup, did not anoint Brezhnev; Brezhnev, Andropov; Andropov, Chernenko; and Chernenko, Gorbachev.

The other obstacle to a smooth transition is the sheer enormity of the stakes. Even after the centuries of the patrimonial state, in which political power has translated into ownership or control of much of the country’s natural wealth, never has the jackpot been so huge: Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year.

No matter how many promises are being made to presidential hopefuls and their salivating retinues about sharing in the riches, the vertical of power is a sparse, even austere piece of political architecture. There are simply not enough top rent-generating offices in Russian politics, and in the daily expanding state-controlled sector of the economy, to be handed over to all current claimants: not enough Duma committee chairmanships (where the going rate for introducing a law reportedly is $1 million), regional governorships, top positions in the extremely lucrative tax police and customs, company chairmanships and directorships in the oil, gas, metals, armaments, automotive and aviation industries.

In the winner-take-all regime Mr. Putin has forged, his probable decision to hand over the power hardly presages a period of certainty and tranquility. In the words of one of the most astute Russian political observers, Mark Urnov, “those who have failed to become heirs will have nothing to lose. The bets have been placed, the only thing to do is to fight.”

There are no lame ducks in Putin’s Russia–only dead ones. Thus, the appointment of the successor must be withheld for as long as possible, to prevent those passed over from coalescing and perhaps even reaching out to the pro-democracy opposition. Such an alliance would be the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a potentially escalating popular movement for unmanaged, free and fair elections, akin to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05. The succession games may last well into this fall, and one could do worse, investment-wise, than betting a modest amount in rubles, steadily appreciating against the dollar, that neither of the current front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, will get the nod.

Yet managing the succession by keeping the elites off balance is only one source of the Kremlin’s nervousness. The other is a slew of potential economic and social crises stemming from subverted, frozen or entirely abandoned structural reforms to redress the commodity dependence, the neglect of “human capital” and the disrepair of the worn-out industrial infrastructure. Camouflaged by the oil wealth and passed over in silence by the re-nationalized or intimidated mass media, these political time bombs are ticking louder and louder.

Despite regular, almost-ritual official calls to shift away from commodity exports to a knowledge-based, high-tech modern economy, the goal has been subverted by the ideologically-motivated turn toward greater state control and the fear of private initiative and wealth-creation. Instead, Russia’s expanding economy (and thus the “stability” on which Putin’s popularity is founded) remains extremely vulnerable to oil-price fluctuations. At least one-third of the Russian state budget today comes from oil revenues. A World Bank study has concluded that the GDP growth of 5% or higher was “realized in Russia only at times when the oil price has increased.” It is widely assumed among independent Russian experts that a precipitous decline to $40 a barrel (not to mention, below) will have immediate and profoundly negative consequences for economy and the standard of living.

Apart from much-needed salary increases for teachers and doctors, the “national projects” on health and education, unveiled by the government with great fanfare in 2005, have done very little to reform the state-based, impoverished, rigid and backward health-care and education systems inherited from the Soviet Union. Amid the oil price boom, Russia spent less on health-care as percentage of GDP in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) than in the first year of the fragile post-Soviet economic recovery in 1997. In an August 2006 national survey, 70% of respondents said that they and their families could not count on getting “good” medical care.

The hydrocarbon windfall has done nothing to increase life expectancy, which at 65 years is still below that of China or India. Russia also is a world leader in industrial, aviation and traffic accidents. Crime is rising; over the past six years, there has been a 10% increase in the number of murders and a 73% rise in drug-related crimes.

With the number of working adults, especially males, diminishing precipitously, the worker-to-retiree ratio is estimated by Russia’s leading economists to drop to 1 to 1 “in the very near future.” Yet already today, the average pension is 25% of the average salary–the lowest proportion in Europe. Such a pension is 3,000 rubles ($115), whereas the minimal food expenditures (“just not to starve” as a Russian newspaper puts it) is 1,500 rubles. Some in the government have already begun to talk about raising the pension age as the only solution–something that the estimated 17 million men and women who expect to retire in the next 10 years are most likely to resent and protest, perhaps violently.

Yet the dwindling number of Russians who want to work and make a go of it are daily disheartened and handicapped by corruption. Both in its reach and the amount of money involved, the bribery and sleaze today makes the graft of the 1990s look like the child’s play. In the ranking by Transparency International Russia is 121st out of 163 countries, behind Albania, Kazakhstan and Zambia, and on a par with Benin, Gambia, Honduras and Rwanda. The growing independence of courts, one of the most promising achievements of the 1990s, has been reversed by the travesty of the Yukos-Khodorkovsky and spy trials. Not just entrepreneurs, who are now fair game for shakedowns, but even ordinary Russians, are less and less capable of seeking protection in courts against rapacious and incompetent bureaucrats at every level.

Nor is the Russian state capable of providing broad and effective protection in a more immediate sense. While Chechnya is for now “pacified” by the former Islamic guerillas who switched sides, the multi-ethnic North Caucasus is virtually ungovernable, especially its largest “autonomous republic,” Dagestan. The conventional armed forces are utterly incapable of dealing with new threats. A dysfunctional relic of the tsarist and Soviet past, for today’s conscripts the Russian army is a combination of a prison and torture chamber.

With every family doing everything they can to shield their boys from the army, increasingly it is the bottom of the barrel that the army gets: the functionally illiterate and those with criminal records or a history of drug addiction. There is more than enough money to effect a transition to a modern, lean, mobile, well-equipped, well-trained and motivated force, supported by millions of Russians. President Putin himself promised in the beginning of his first term, but the reform has been abandoned.

Each of these simmering crises may quickly boil over. The prospect of several unfolding in concert is troubling. In combination with falling oil prices, they may cause a political equivalent of a “perfect storm.” Yet with the deliberate weakening of the mediating institutions of democracy, the center of political gravity in Putin’s Russia has shifted to the very top, making the Kremlin responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the country.

Everything that the Russian authorities do in the next 12 months will be informed by this sense of vulnerability, and aimed at making sure that vagaries of succession are not multiplied or even made unmanageable by the corrupt state’s obsessive quest for control in pursuit of ever greater share of the country’s oil wealth.

Aron on Russia’s Succession Crisis

Resident Scholar Leon Aron (pictured below) of the American Enterprise Institute describes Russia’s coming “succession crisis”:

Resident Scholar Leon Aron

After Boris Yeltsin died on April 23, all Russian television networks waited for almost three hours to break the news. They were afraid to say anything before the Kremlin did. Three days later, in the state-of-Russia address to the Duma, Vladimir Putin announced the unilateral “suspension” by Russia of the 1990 treaty governing the size and positioning of conventional forces in Europe. A few days before, an estimated 4,000 policemen set upon a few hundred protesters in Moscow with a ferocity that shocked even some government officials and legislators.

Even by the standards of Mr. Putin’s Russia, these episodes stand apart in the shrillness of their authoritarian insolence and disregard for public opinion inside and outside the country. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for talks, she might see for herself the reason for the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, and the increasingly harsh climate inside: the jitters that next year’s presidential succession is already generating in the Kremlin.

Despite an official propaganda barrage daily proclaiming orderly change after the presidential election in March 2008, the succession is far from a done deal. The erosion or outright eradication of what might be called shock-absorbers of democracy that endow the process and the result of a transition with legitimacy–elected local authorities, independent parliament and mass media, and genuine opposition–has ushered in uncertainty and risk. The foundation of the much-touted “vertical of power,” as the new system of the Kremlin’s dominance over the country’s politics and key sectors of the economy is known, is shallow. The stairs going down are gnarled and perhaps unable to bear much weight.

To these generic handicaps to succession in an authoritarian regime, today’s Russia adds two serious complications. The first is the tradition of Russian and Soviet political culture–which Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin tried so hard to overcome, but which Mr. Putin (who has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”) seems to admire and emulate. Successions were hardly smooth even under the tsars, with quite a few legitimate claimants to the throne (or even those already sitting on it by right) strangled, drowned, stabbed or forced to retire into monasteries. In the Soviet era, not one putative heir apparent came to power. Lenin never wished for Stalin to succeed him; Stalin would not have wanted Khrushchev; Khrushchev, ousted by a coup, did not anoint Brezhnev; Brezhnev, Andropov; Andropov, Chernenko; and Chernenko, Gorbachev.

The other obstacle to a smooth transition is the sheer enormity of the stakes. Even after the centuries of the patrimonial state, in which political power has translated into ownership or control of much of the country’s natural wealth, never has the jackpot been so huge: Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year.

No matter how many promises are being made to presidential hopefuls and their salivating retinues about sharing in the riches, the vertical of power is a sparse, even austere piece of political architecture. There are simply not enough top rent-generating offices in Russian politics, and in the daily expanding state-controlled sector of the economy, to be handed over to all current claimants: not enough Duma committee chairmanships (where the going rate for introducing a law reportedly is $1 million), regional governorships, top positions in the extremely lucrative tax police and customs, company chairmanships and directorships in the oil, gas, metals, armaments, automotive and aviation industries.

In the winner-take-all regime Mr. Putin has forged, his probable decision to hand over the power hardly presages a period of certainty and tranquility. In the words of one of the most astute Russian political observers, Mark Urnov, “those who have failed to become heirs will have nothing to lose. The bets have been placed, the only thing to do is to fight.”

There are no lame ducks in Putin’s Russia–only dead ones. Thus, the appointment of the successor must be withheld for as long as possible, to prevent those passed over from coalescing and perhaps even reaching out to the pro-democracy opposition. Such an alliance would be the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a potentially escalating popular movement for unmanaged, free and fair elections, akin to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05. The succession games may last well into this fall, and one could do worse, investment-wise, than betting a modest amount in rubles, steadily appreciating against the dollar, that neither of the current front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, will get the nod.

Yet managing the succession by keeping the elites off balance is only one source of the Kremlin’s nervousness. The other is a slew of potential economic and social crises stemming from subverted, frozen or entirely abandoned structural reforms to redress the commodity dependence, the neglect of “human capital” and the disrepair of the worn-out industrial infrastructure. Camouflaged by the oil wealth and passed over in silence by the re-nationalized or intimidated mass media, these political time bombs are ticking louder and louder.

Despite regular, almost-ritual official calls to shift away from commodity exports to a knowledge-based, high-tech modern economy, the goal has been subverted by the ideologically-motivated turn toward greater state control and the fear of private initiative and wealth-creation. Instead, Russia’s expanding economy (and thus the “stability” on which Putin’s popularity is founded) remains extremely vulnerable to oil-price fluctuations. At least one-third of the Russian state budget today comes from oil revenues. A World Bank study has concluded that the GDP growth of 5% or higher was “realized in Russia only at times when the oil price has increased.” It is widely assumed among independent Russian experts that a precipitous decline to $40 a barrel (not to mention, below) will have immediate and profoundly negative consequences for economy and the standard of living.

Apart from much-needed salary increases for teachers and doctors, the “national projects” on health and education, unveiled by the government with great fanfare in 2005, have done very little to reform the state-based, impoverished, rigid and backward health-care and education systems inherited from the Soviet Union. Amid the oil price boom, Russia spent less on health-care as percentage of GDP in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) than in the first year of the fragile post-Soviet economic recovery in 1997. In an August 2006 national survey, 70% of respondents said that they and their families could not count on getting “good” medical care.

The hydrocarbon windfall has done nothing to increase life expectancy, which at 65 years is still below that of China or India. Russia also is a world leader in industrial, aviation and traffic accidents. Crime is rising; over the past six years, there has been a 10% increase in the number of murders and a 73% rise in drug-related crimes.

With the number of working adults, especially males, diminishing precipitously, the worker-to-retiree ratio is estimated by Russia’s leading economists to drop to 1 to 1 “in the very near future.” Yet already today, the average pension is 25% of the average salary–the lowest proportion in Europe. Such a pension is 3,000 rubles ($115), whereas the minimal food expenditures (“just not to starve” as a Russian newspaper puts it) is 1,500 rubles. Some in the government have already begun to talk about raising the pension age as the only solution–something that the estimated 17 million men and women who expect to retire in the next 10 years are most likely to resent and protest, perhaps violently.

Yet the dwindling number of Russians who want to work and make a go of it are daily disheartened and handicapped by corruption. Both in its reach and the amount of money involved, the bribery and sleaze today makes the graft of the 1990s look like the child’s play. In the ranking by Transparency International Russia is 121st out of 163 countries, behind Albania, Kazakhstan and Zambia, and on a par with Benin, Gambia, Honduras and Rwanda. The growing independence of courts, one of the most promising achievements of the 1990s, has been reversed by the travesty of the Yukos-Khodorkovsky and spy trials. Not just entrepreneurs, who are now fair game for shakedowns, but even ordinary Russians, are less and less capable of seeking protection in courts against rapacious and incompetent bureaucrats at every level.

Nor is the Russian state capable of providing broad and effective protection in a more immediate sense. While Chechnya is for now “pacified” by the former Islamic guerillas who switched sides, the multi-ethnic North Caucasus is virtually ungovernable, especially its largest “autonomous republic,” Dagestan. The conventional armed forces are utterly incapable of dealing with new threats. A dysfunctional relic of the tsarist and Soviet past, for today’s conscripts the Russian army is a combination of a prison and torture chamber.

With every family doing everything they can to shield their boys from the army, increasingly it is the bottom of the barrel that the army gets: the functionally illiterate and those with criminal records or a history of drug addiction. There is more than enough money to effect a transition to a modern, lean, mobile, well-equipped, well-trained and motivated force, supported by millions of Russians. President Putin himself promised in the beginning of his first term, but the reform has been abandoned.

Each of these simmering crises may quickly boil over. The prospect of several unfolding in concert is troubling. In combination with falling oil prices, they may cause a political equivalent of a “perfect storm.” Yet with the deliberate weakening of the mediating institutions of democracy, the center of political gravity in Putin’s Russia has shifted to the very top, making the Kremlin responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the country.

Everything that the Russian authorities do in the next 12 months will be informed by this sense of vulnerability, and aimed at making sure that vagaries of succession are not multiplied or even made unmanageable by the corrupt state’s obsessive quest for control in pursuit of ever greater share of the country’s oil wealth.

Aron on Russia’s Succession Crisis

Resident Scholar Leon Aron (pictured below) of the American Enterprise Institute describes Russia’s coming “succession crisis”:

Resident Scholar Leon Aron  
   

After Boris Yeltsin died on April 23, all Russian television networks waited for almost three hours to break the news. They were afraid to say anything before the Kremlin did. Three days later, in the state-of-Russia address to the Duma, Vladimir Putin announced the unilateral “suspension” by Russia of the 1990 treaty governing the size and positioning of conventional forces in Europe. A few days before, an estimated 4,000 policemen set upon a few hundred protesters in Moscow with a ferocity that shocked even some government officials and legislators.

Even by the standards of Mr. Putin’s Russia, these episodes stand apart in the shrillness of their authoritarian insolence and disregard for public opinion inside and outside the country. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for talks, she might see for herself the reason for the increasingly tense relations between the two countries, and the increasingly harsh climate inside: the jitters that next year’s presidential succession is already generating in the Kremlin.

Despite an official propaganda barrage daily proclaiming orderly change after the presidential election in March 2008, the succession is far from a done deal. The erosion or outright eradication of what might be called shock-absorbers of democracy that endow the process and the result of a transition with legitimacy–elected local authorities, independent parliament and mass media, and genuine opposition–has ushered in uncertainty and risk. The foundation of the much-touted “vertical of power,” as the new system of the Kremlin’s dominance over the country’s politics and key sectors of the economy is known, is shallow. The stairs going down are gnarled and perhaps unable to bear much weight.

To these generic handicaps to succession in an authoritarian regime, today’s Russia adds two serious complications. The first is the tradition of Russian and Soviet political culture–which Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin tried so hard to overcome, but which Mr. Putin (who has bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”) seems to admire and emulate. Successions were hardly smooth even under the tsars, with quite a few legitimate claimants to the throne (or even those already sitting on it by right) strangled, drowned, stabbed or forced to retire into monasteries. In the Soviet era, not one putative heir apparent came to power. Lenin never wished for Stalin to succeed him; Stalin would not have wanted Khrushchev; Khrushchev, ousted by a coup, did not anoint Brezhnev; Brezhnev, Andropov; Andropov, Chernenko; and Chernenko, Gorbachev.

The other obstacle to a smooth transition is the sheer enormity of the stakes. Even after the centuries of the patrimonial state, in which political power has translated into ownership or control of much of the country’s natural wealth, never has the jackpot been so huge: Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year.

No matter how many promises are being made to presidential hopefuls and their salivating retinues about sharing in the riches, the vertical of power is a sparse, even austere piece of political architecture. There are simply not enough top rent-generating offices in Russian politics, and in the daily expanding state-controlled sector of the economy, to be handed over to all current claimants: not enough Duma committee chairmanships (where the going rate for introducing a law reportedly is $1 million), regional governorships, top positions in the extremely lucrative tax police and customs, company chairmanships and directorships in the oil, gas, metals, armaments, automotive and aviation industries.

In the winner-take-all regime Mr. Putin has forged, his probable decision to hand over the power hardly presages a period of certainty and tranquility. In the words of one of the most astute Russian political observers, Mark Urnov, “those who have failed to become heirs will have nothing to lose. The bets have been placed, the only thing to do is to fight.”

There are no lame ducks in Putin’s Russia–only dead ones. Thus, the appointment of the successor must be withheld for as long as possible, to prevent those passed over from coalescing and perhaps even reaching out to the pro-democracy opposition. Such an alliance would be the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a potentially escalating popular movement for unmanaged, free and fair elections, akin to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05. The succession games may last well into this fall, and one could do worse, investment-wise, than betting a modest amount in rubles, steadily appreciating against the dollar, that neither of the current front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, will get the nod.

Yet managing the succession by keeping the elites off balance is only one source of the Kremlin’s nervousness. The other is a slew of potential economic and social crises stemming from subverted, frozen or entirely abandoned structural reforms to redress the commodity dependence, the neglect of “human capital” and the disrepair of the worn-out industrial infrastructure. Camouflaged by the oil wealth and passed over in silence by the re-nationalized or intimidated mass media, these political time bombs are ticking louder and louder.

Despite regular, almost-ritual official calls to shift away from commodity exports to a knowledge-based, high-tech modern economy, the goal has been subverted by the ideologically-motivated turn toward greater state control and the fear of private initiative and wealth-creation. Instead, Russia’s expanding economy (and thus the “stability” on which Putin’s popularity is founded) remains extremely vulnerable to oil-price fluctuations. At least one-third of the Russian state budget today comes from oil revenues. A World Bank study has concluded that the GDP growth of 5% or higher was “realized in Russia only at times when the oil price has increased.” It is widely assumed among independent Russian experts that a precipitous decline to $40 a barrel (not to mention, below) will have immediate and profoundly negative consequences for economy and the standard of living.

Apart from much-needed salary increases for teachers and doctors, the “national projects” on health and education, unveiled by the government with great fanfare in 2005, have done very little to reform the state-based, impoverished, rigid and backward health-care and education systems inherited from the Soviet Union. Amid the oil price boom, Russia spent less on health-care as percentage of GDP in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) than in the first year of the fragile post-Soviet economic recovery in 1997. In an August 2006 national survey, 70% of respondents said that they and their families could not count on getting “good” medical care.

The hydrocarbon windfall has done nothing to increase life expectancy, which at 65 years is still below that of China or India. Russia also is a world leader in industrial, aviation and traffic accidents. Crime is rising; over the past six years, there has been a 10% increase in the number of murders and a 73% rise in drug-related crimes.

With the number of working adults, especially males, diminishing precipitously, the worker-to-retiree ratio is estimated by Russia’s leading economists to drop to 1 to 1 “in the very near future.” Yet already today, the average pension is 25% of the average salary–the lowest proportion in Europe. Such a pension is 3,000 rubles ($115), whereas the minimal food expenditures (“just not to starve” as a Russian newspaper puts it) is 1,500 rubles. Some in the government have already begun to talk about raising the pension age as the only solution–something that the estimated 17 million men and women who expect to retire in the next 10 years are most likely to resent and protest, perhaps violently.

Yet the dwindling number of Russians who want to work and make a go of it are daily disheartened and handicapped by corruption. Both in its reach and the amount of money involved, the bribery and sleaze today makes the graft of the 1990s look like the child’s play. In the ranking by Transparency International Russia is 121st out of 163 countries, behind Albania, Kazakhstan and Zambia, and on a par with Benin, Gambia, Honduras and Rwanda. The growing independence of courts, one of the most promising achievements of the 1990s, has been reversed by the travesty of the Yukos-Khodorkovsky and spy trials. Not just entrepreneurs, who are now fair game for shakedowns, but even ordinary Russians, are less and less capable of seeking protection in courts against rapacious and incompetent bureaucrats at every level.

Nor is the Russian state capable of providing broad and effective protection in a more immediate sense. While Chechnya is for now “pacified” by the former Islamic guerillas who switched sides, the multi-ethnic North Caucasus is virtually ungovernable, especially its largest “autonomous republic,” Dagestan. The conventional armed forces are utterly incapable of dealing with new threats. A dysfunctional relic of the tsarist and Soviet past, for today’s conscripts the Russian army is a combination of a prison and torture chamber.

With every family doing everything they can to shield their boys from the army, increasingly it is the bottom of the barrel that the army gets: the functionally illiterate and those with criminal records or a history of drug addiction. There is more than enough money to effect a transition to a modern, lean, mobile, well-equipped, well-trained and motivated force, supported by millions of Russians. President Putin himself promised in the beginning of his first term, but the reform has been abandoned.

Each of these simmering crises may quickly boil over. The prospect of several unfolding in concert is troubling. In combination with falling oil prices, they may cause a political equivalent of a “perfect storm.” Yet with the deliberate weakening of the mediating institutions of democracy, the center of political gravity in Putin’s Russia has shifted to the very top, making the Kremlin responsible for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the country.

Everything that the Russian authorities do in the next 12 months will be informed by this sense of vulnerability, and aimed at making sure that vagaries of succession are not multiplied or even made unmanageable by the corrupt state’s obsessive quest for control in pursuit of ever greater share of the country’s oil wealth.

At Last! Kasparov Opens Fire on the Kremlin

Maybe opposition politician Garry Kasparov has been listening to La Russophobe! Or maybe he just got tired of being grabbed by “President” Putin’s “police.” Either way, according to Radio Free Europe he’s finally crossed the Rubicon, openly likening the Kremlin to Zimbabwe (Illarionov’s analogy) and Belarus (it’s a disgrace that the international press is not covering this important development more widely). At the same time, Kasparov still has a ways to go before he has real credibility. He must do more to lay out the vices of the Kremlin in language people can understand and remember, and he must do more to distance himself from his Western connections. It’s encouraging to see that the Kremlin didn’t have the guts to confront and arrest the protesters on the streets when the heads of EU states were right there watching. Typical Kremlin cowardice.

Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov has compared the government of President Vladimir Putin to the dictatorships in Belarus and Zimbabwe, according to RFE/RL’s Russian Service. Kasparov said that while Russia might be closer to the European Union than to Africa, politically it resembles the dictatorship of Zimbabwe more than the democracies of Germany or France. The former world chess champion and leader of the Other Russia opposition grouping made his comment to Reuters after he and other anti-Kremlin activists were prevented from attending an opposition demonstration on May 18 in Samara, the site of an EU-Russia summit.

Anti-Kremlin protests proceeded elsewhere in Russia, however. “The space for freedom is shrinking every day in Russia, and we can talk today about not only a police state but virtually about the regime that is [closer] to [Belarus] or Zimbabwe…than to democratic countries from Europe,” Kasparov said.

When Kasparov and fellow activists tried to check in to their flight, they were told that the computer system did not recognize their tickets. Kasparov, interviewed at the time by RFE/RL, explained what happened: “We were not allowed to fly out. Most [of the group members] had their passports and tickets taken away. This continued for almost five hours, and there was no explanation given for the first two hours. After that, they said they were gathering information about the tickets because supposedly 13 passengers [from the group] — including correspondents from the American ‘The Wall Street Journal’ and the British ‘The Daily Telegraph,’ by the way — [possessed] forged tickets.”

Reports say some 200 protesters took part anyway in the “March of Dissent” rally in Samara. And on May 19, anti-Kremlin rallies continued in the city of Chelyabinsk, about 2,100 kilometers east of the capital, Moscow. More than 100 demonstrators protested what they call President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian policies. In the past, such marches have been forcefully broken up by police in other cities. But one of the organizers of the Chelyabinsk March of Dissent, Oleg Stifonov, told RFE/RL the rally proceeded peacefully. “Some 150 people took part in the event,” Stifonov said. “The slogans were standard for all Marches of Dissent — demands for the resignation of President Putin and other social slogans. The police behaved absolutely correctly.” The Kremlin says it does not see Other Russia as a political threat, but accuses it of seeking to destabilize Russia ahead of the next scheduled presidential election, in March 2008.

Kasparov was briefly detained after a protest rally in Moscow last month. He says the opposition is gearing up for at least three major demonstrations in the coming weeks. “I think that Other Russia should be very much satisfied, because the marches will go on,” Kasparov said. “We do not stop; we believe that this form of organizing mass protests worked very effectively and we are going to continue. We will have three more marches within the next three weeks in Voronezh and then a big event in St. Petersburg on June 9, and in Moscow on June 11.”

Meanwhile, amid rising concerns over Russian government interference in the media, reports today say eight journalists have resigned from the Russian News Service to protest a new policy that requires half their news to portray the government in a “positive light.” The resignations began in April after new management was hired and the new policy was introduced. Mikhail Baklanov, who was fired as editor in chief at the news service in April, said people left because “there was no chance to work professionally.” The Russian News Service provides news broadcasts to Russia’s most popular radio network and millions of listeners.

More from the Telegraph:

Garry Kasparov yesterday called on Europe to face up to the fact that Russia is an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. The chess champion turned activist was prevented from staging a protest as EU leaders met with President Vladimir Putin. “They should be honest,” he told The Daily Telegraph at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. “Russia is not a democratic regime, it is an authoritarian regime. Putin is not a democrat, they should recognise this. “Giving him credentials as a democrat is very damaging for the opposition. Every time they do this it allows him to dismiss us as marginals and extremists.”

As EU leaders met for the second day of a summit with Mr Putin in Samara, a city in the Urals, Mr Kasparov and 26 activists and western reporters were detained in Moscow after allegations that their tickets were forged meant they missed their flight. The group, including this correspondent, were told their seats had either been overlooked or their tickets could not be recognised by Aeroflot’s computers. They were questioned by police, who confiscated their passports. Members of the pro-Kremlin youth wing Nashi, dressed in white coats and presenting themselves as medical orderlies, handed out leaflets suggesting that Mr Kasparov was deranged. After more than five hours – minutes after the last flight to Samara had departed – the group was released. A police official at the airport reportedly blamed a computer problem that meant Mr Kasparov and his companions could not be issued with a ticket. “If this doesn’t convince you we live in a police state, nothing will,” Mr Kasparov said. “In these cases, laughing is the only thing left to us. You either have to laugh or cry.”

He had been planning to stage a protest rally in Samara to draw attention to Mr Putin’s increasingly repressive crackdown on dissent. Last month, Mr Kasparov was arrested for “shouting anti-government slogans” during a rally held by The Other Russia movement, an opposition he was instrumental in creating. Previous demonstrations in the past six months had not gone well. Banned by the authorities, riot police violently broke them up, kicking and beating with batons any peaceful protesters who had dared to gather. The Samara demonstration, too, was initially outlawed but the Kremlin reversed the decision under intense pressure from its European Union guests. For Mr Kasparov, who retired from chess in 2005 to devote himself to Russia’s fading pro-democracy crusade, the rally was a crucial opportunity to tell western leaders how to deal with Russia. But it was clearly a message the Kremlin preferred to silence.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said at a post-summit news conference: “All of those who want to stage a rally in Samara should be able to do so. “I can understand if you arrest people that are throwing stones or threaten the right of the state to enforce order . . . But it is altogether a different thing if you hold people up on the way to a demonstration.”

Mr Putin said the actions of Russian police “were not always justified”. But, becoming visibly riled, he hit back, saying Mr Kasparov and his colleagues were “marginals” and that EU countries also had flaws in their democracies. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, played down the incident. “I don’t think the issue of the non-arrival of a Russian citizen, even a famous one, will be on the summit agenda,” he said. The summit had been called amid ambitions for deeper ties between Russia and the EU. But there was no breakthrough on a partnership agreement. Talks are stalled because of a Polish veto, part of a trade row with Russia. Moscow had hoped the EU leadership would persuade Poland – as well as Estonia and Lithuania, which have their own rows with Russia – to moderate their stances. Poland blocked the talks after Russia imposed a ban on imports of Polish meat. Moscow has accused Estonia of desecrating the memory of Second World War victims after it moved a Soviet-era war memorial. Lithuania is unhappy that Russia has switched off an oil pipeline. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, made clear the EU was squarely behind its members. “We had occasion to say to our Russian partners that a difficulty for a member state is a difficulty for the whole European community,” he said.