- (december 2011)
The Russian Spring.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 that installed the communists in power and
created the Soviet Union had a side
effect that has been harder to undo than communism itself: it isolated Russia
from the rest of Europe (at least from the part of Europe that was not
occupied by the Soviet Union). Until then the Soviet Union had been a full
member and protagonist of the big European mess, a continuing shift of
alliances for the purpose of conquering small (and sometimes irrelevant)
territories. Starting in 1917, Russia was no longer perceived by the rest
of Europe as one of them but rather as a sinister and cryptic entity.
In retrospect, the Soviet Union's most influential feature may have been its
control of information, that created what is still one of the most
inscrutable regimes in history, a model later copied by mainland China,
North Korea and all the other communist regimes. The net effect was to
turn Russia into the polar opposite of the Western world. When the Soviet
Union fell, a lot of things were undone, but not that one: Russia still
lives on the margins of the Christian world, is emarginated in the process of
European integration and is perceived as a potential threat by its European
neighbors even if (in theory) it has adopted the capitalist democratic model.
It goes both ways: Russians perceive any move by the Western powers
(whether it's about the Iranian nuclear reactor or the Taliban in Afghanistan)
as targeting, first and foremost, Russian interests. The West, at the same time,
perceives any move by Russia as, first and foremost, defending Russia's old
sphere of influence at the expense of whatever makes sense to Western observers.
In my opinion, the main effect of the Arab Spring in the long term will be to
bring the Arab world much closer to the values and lifestyle of the West.
The main driver of that revolution was dignity: the average person in North
Africa and in the Middle East wants to enjoy the same degree of dignity that
has become (over the last 60 years) standard in Europe. Europe has largely
eliminated dictatorship, corruption, organized crime and feudal disparities
that had plagued the continent since the fall of the Roman empire.
The Arab Spring aims at doing the same in the Arab world.
Russia has been left behind: a country still plague by an authoritarian regime
that imprisons its opponents, by organized crime that rules undisturbed, by
a ridiculous wealth gap that saps money away from the working and middle classes,
and by widespread corruption. Its citizens risk becoming not only second-class
citizens, but fourth or fifth class, behind the Far East, Latin America and now
even the Arabs.
When Putin announced that he was returning to the post of president, after a
brief vacation as prime minister, he indirectly told Russians just that:
Russian society will trail behind the rest of the world.
Putin may have miscalculated how patient his people are willing to be.
They might agree with him on many foreign issues, but they know enough of
what happens in the world to yearn for a better model of state.
At the same time the periphery is in turmoil: both Kazaks and Uzbeks are rapidly
beginning to resent the totalitarian regimes that have ruled them since 1991.
There is a point in every system when the economic benefits of a regime are
no longer enough to justify the existence of that regime. People start demanding
dignity, fairness, justice. A social crisis is brooding in Central Asia as much
as it was in the Arab world.
The Western borders are much quieter, but it is telling that Russia has been
arguing with its most trusted ally, Belorus (the last dictator left in Europe),
and that its second trusted ally, Ukraine's president Viktor Yushchenko is
courting the European Union. Even when they are old friends, European countries
want to become integrated with the European Union more than they want to
be grateful to Russia. Take Serbia: Russia was the only country to stand with
the Serbians when NATO was bombing them, but in december 2009 Serbia applied
for membership in the European Union and some day it may become part of NATO.
The Russian regime may therefore come into attack from three sides: the West
that is slowly but steadily corroding its sphere of influence, the Arab Spring
that is presenting an appealing model for the Russians of the Facebook/Twitter
generation, and Central Asia that might ignite the fire of social upheaval.
Russia has the same major problem that the Arabs had: no strong candidate to
start and lead the revolt. In the Arab world eventually the revolt was started
by two unlikely candidates: a man who set himself on fire in Tunisia and a
Google executive in Egypt. Something similar might happen in Russia: an obscure
everyman or everywoman whose extraordinary action triggers a chain reaction
among the young people (blogger Aleksei Navalny is the West's favorite).
The difference, of course, is that Arabs were so
desperate that they were willing to die; and they could count on the silent
complicity of the Western powers who could exert power on the regimes (and bomb
the one in Libya). Neither factor will work in Russia: young urban Russians are
relatively rich and spoiled, and are unlikely to risk death or even arrest.
The West has no influence on the Russian regime, and, in fact, any pressure
by the West could backfire in favor of the regime. Internally, the Russian
opposition is divided between the old-fashioned communists (who won a
respectable 20% of votes in the last rigged elections) and the discredited
liberal democrats (who are widely viewed as responsible for the economic
collapse of the early 1990s). Neither side is likely to attract the crowds
that we have seen in the Arab world.
Change may have to come from the top, and the one man who could enact such
change is the current president: Dmitry Medvedev. He was installed by Putin
as a temporary place-holders for himself. Medvedev was an obedient puppet
but he often presented himself as more Westernized. Putin owes his survival
to having created a divide between his Russia and the West (just like Gorbachev,
the Soviet Union's last president,
can blame his fall on having tried to bridge that divide).
Medvedev has to decide if he will just quietly fade away, despised as a faceless
bureaucrat, or if he wants to remain a force in politics. If the latter,
his chance to make history is to become the one who stands up to Putin and
begins the political reforms that Russia needs in order to move into the
TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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