James Marsen, writing on the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” blog:
As Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration, one analyst has suggested that the US faces more serious trouble than even the most pessimistic economists have forecast. The entire economy is set to crash by November, leaving states fighting among themselves and leading to disintegration into six parts by summer 2010. As the weakened parts fall under foreign influence, Russia will take the golden opportunity to replace the US as the world’s foremost superpower.
According to the former KGB analyst and dean of the international relations department at the Russian foreign ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, Igor Panarin, this scenario has “a roughly 50% chance of coming true”. This theory has been receiving widespread attention in the Russian state-controlled media.
Another story of a similar ilk has sat at the top of the state-backed Moscow News’s most-read list for the past few months: a “prophetess” called Vanga has predicted that Russia will dominate the world. Economists’ assessments of Russia, a country that currently accounts for about 3% of global GDP (comparable with the UK) and with per capita GDP at a quarter of the US level, are somewhat more sobering. Its economy is in serious trouble after years of neglected reforms, over-reliance on commodities and a failure to tackle rampant corruption.
Some point to Russia’s large currency reserves, but these have declined by over one quarter since August, and are rapidly disappearing to prop up the banking system, Kremlin-connected oligarchs and the sliding rouble. The recent gas conflict with Ukraine has been read by many as driven by the increasing financial woes of Gazprom and Russia. The Russian leadership’s response to the crisis has so far had two main thrusts – first, to protect favoured oligarchs; second, to protect the leadership from popular dissent by stopping the rouble from plummeting. No one really knows how bad Russia’s economic situation is because of an opacity fed by the desire to maintain calm and cover up problems and mistakes.
But that image is struggling under the weight of the crisis. Factories stand idle across Russia, and surveys show that Russians are very worried about the economy as wage cuts and layoffs hit. In the far eastern city of Vladivostok, December’s economic protests have turned political.
For years, critics have pointed to the need for an open debate within Russia about the country’s path in order to find the best way for economic and social progress and to minimise the effect of any crisis such as the current one. But with dollars dripping down from the top and state-controlled TV pushing the image of Putin and Russia as strong and growing after years of stagnation and hardship, ideas other than the Putin model struggled to take hold.
But in Russia’s history, crises have often served to sober up perceptions of the country. Nicholas I (1825-1855) was renowned as the “gendarme of Europe”. During his reign, the intelligentsia complained constantly of repression from the state on the one hand and disinterest from people on the other. Then Russia was crushed by the British in the Crimean War. Nicholas committed suicide and Russian strength was revealed to be a self-propagating myth. As society opened up, interest increased in other paths that Russia could take; people began to discuss questions of reform. London-based Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen’s journal The Bell, which detailed abuses of power by state officials and proposed new, different paths for Russia, was read avidly. This discussion led the way for the reforms of Alexander II. Public debate had opened up new possibilities for economic and social change, alternative paths to a country directed by autocratic decision alone (which were ultimately not taken).
As the crisis increasingly reveals the gulf between Russia’s self-image and its real possibilities, the time of Panarin and Vanga could be coming to an end. Talk will surely move from fantasies about Russia challenging the US to the country’s very real internal problems and how to solve them. Previously deaf ears will begin to listen as the failures of the current leadership become clear in everyday life. The question that will then be raised is one that has been asked of Russian leaders for centuries: liberalisation, or crack down?