Russia, Land of Hypocrites

Streetwise Professor reports:

It’s amazing the things Russophobes will say.  Like this:

“Right now [Russia's] investment climate is so bad that it won’t be affected” [by the imminent failure of the BP-Rosneft deal].

What slander.  Must be some retrograde, Cold War fossil.

Check that.  It was Arkady Dvorkovich, Medvedev’s top economic aide.

Dvorkovich is actually a serial offender:

The risk of doing business in Russia will increase in the eyes of many foreign investors after the second conviction of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky last month, Kremlin economic aide Arkady Dvorkovich said Wednesday.

“I think a considerable portion of at least the foreign community will have serious questions, and the assessment of risks of working in the Russian Federation will rise,” he said in an online interview with Gazeta.ru.

If he asks you to start his car, I’d take a pass.

Well, what about this outrageous slur against “Russian culture”?:

What are we witnessing at present? Unfortunately, we are witnessing a shortage of trust. And we should say this openly. I have already given my assessment to the investment climate in [Russia]. It is very bad here, very bad.

“For many relatively small companies, conditions for doing business have deteriorated rather than improved this year. Mandatory insurance contributions have been increased for quite understandable reasons. I know this. Electricity payments have increased in the majority of regions. This has also facilitated a rise in the prices of some other products of the economy.

“Corruption remains a factor affecting the overall economic situation. The grip of corruption is not weakening. It is holding the entire economy by the throat. The result is clear. Cash is fleeing our economy. Not as many people as we would have liked to believe in the possibility of safe and successful entrepreneurship. Not too many entrepreneurs believe in this.”

That’s gotta be some Russia-hater, right?  Wrong:  that was Dmitri Medvedev.  You know, the Dmitri Medvedev who happens to be President of the Russian Federation.

For those of you who think that I am some inveterate Russia hater, accept the reality that the vast bulk of what I have written about Russia’s political and economic system documents and critiques the very same dysfunctions that Dvorkovich and Medvedev bewail.  Deal with it.  Shrieking “Russophobia” at those who have the termerity to point out those dysfunctions is just a cop out.  A cheap way to avoid having to present a real, responsive argument.

And it’s not just Medvedev and Dvorkovich.  There are numerous Russian economists and political scientists that have come to similar conclusions.  Are they all Russophobes too?

No, these critiques are not at all about Russians personally, as a people, or culturally.  They are about different visions of society, economy, and politics.  Many Russians have been taking this side of the argument against other Russians for a long time.  Some Russians who arrogate to themselves the authority to determine what is legitimately Russian often claim that these are in fact foreign and profoundly un-Russian ideas.  And they’ve been doing so for almost two centuries.

If one wanted to summarize the target of the current critiques in a single word, it would be “Putinism.”  Of course Putinism is a variation on a long Russian political tradition, and exhibits similarities with other patrimonial, natural state systems.  But it is a recipe for stagnation, and is fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.  That’s the recurrent SWP theme over the past 5 years.  And serious voices in Russia agree with the gravamen of this critique.

I, of course, can only critique: I can’t do anything about it.  A barking dog, if you will.  But some who have the potential to affect the course of the caravan are finally making rumblings about challenging this system.  Most notably, Medvedev.

Yesterday he announced the most daring move of his presidency (a low standard, to be sure): he has ordered all state ministers to resign seats on the boards of corporations.  The nexus between business and state office is a defining feature of Putinism, so Medvedev’s move threatens the system.  These ministers-cum-directors can use their business positions for self-enrichment, and to deploy economic power to achieve political (and geopolitical) objectives.  Reducing the direct ties between high political office and high business position will hit certain people where it hurts: in their bank accounts, and in their ability to use economic blandishments to exercise political influence.

One of the most prominent targets of this directive is Igor Sechin.  It will be quite interesting to see how this plays out.

I am still skeptical about Medvedev’s ability to change the system substantively, and his stomach for the knife fighting that will be necessary to do so.  But this unexpected, preemptive strike at Putin’s inner circle is the most encouraging sign yet that his reformism is more than just talk. It may lead nowhere. It may lead to some initial changes that will eventually be overwhelmed by Russia’s historical legacy and the daunting difficulties of building impersonal, open institutions. But it’s a start: Putinism is just a dead end.

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