FRAGILE EMPIRE: HOW RUSSIA FELL IN AND OUT OF LOVE WITH VLADIMIR PUTIN by Ben Judah

Vladimir Putin is shown. | AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service

(Vladimir Putin, King of All Sports!)

As Vladimir Putin denies the Russian presence in the current Ukrainian crisis, but at the same time makes statements that he “could take Kiev in two weeks,” and that the world needs to remember that Russia is a nuclear power one wonders how we got here.  President Obama’s threats of further sanctions against Russia seem to accomplish little as European allies do not have the stomach to hit the Russians where it would hurt the most, their energy sector.  As Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine and tilted the conflict in favor of the pro-Russian rebels, the west at last week’s NATO conference in Wales could not bring themselves to use the term invasion or maybe incursion, so I ask again how did we arrive at this impasse?  Ben Judah’s 2013 book, FRAGILE EMPIRE is a wonderful guide to understanding recent events in Ukraine and the state of Putin’s Russia domestically.  Had Judah published his book a year later he would have found further evidence to buttress his argument that Russia had fallen in and out of love with Putin and what the future may hold for a country that is overly dependent economically, socially, and politically on the price of oil; where corruption is the main tool for Putinism’s survival; and a social fabric that is being torn apart by emigration of many of Russia’s most talented people, a declining longevity rate, and a population that is decreasing each year.  Judah who is a superb reporter and political scientist has traveled to most areas of Russia and seems to predict that the weight of Putinism will eventually will lead to its collapse, however the current Ukrainian crisis has improved his popularity among the Russian people as he appeals to Russian nationalism and feeds the paranoia many in Russia feel when compared with the west.

(Obama and Putin at the G8 Summit, July 17, 2013)

Judah begins his study in explaining Putin’s background and rise to political power, concentrating on his main theme that he has written “a study of Putin’s triumph as a politician and his failure to build a modern state.” (2)  Putin was born in post-war Leningrad in 1952 and experienced a childhood of mostly poverty living in a cramped apartment with a communal kitchen and bathroom.  At the age of eleven he went to a local KGB office and asked to join and being politely rebuffed he grew obsessed with patriotic spy films and the martial arts.  The youthful Putin’s world view was a product of a double disaster.  At first he worked for the KGB in Dresden, East Germany, a failed authoritarian state.  He followed that experience as a senior official in St. Petersburg, in a failed democracy.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the winter of 1992 witnessed fears of hunger that had not existed in urban areas since Stalin’s reign as the Russian GDP had fallen by 44%, deeper than the United States in the 1930s.  Judah describes Putin as being from the lost generation of the 1990s.  Putin and his contemporaries had grown up under communist indoctrination; its collapse produced “a generation of cynicism as their world view.”  “Putin, like millions of Russians who dedicated their lives  to the Soviet state, found themselves irrelevant, mocked for having a ‘Soviet mentality;’ those in the KGB were shunned and told they had been the ‘enemy of the people’ all along.” (14)  It is from this environment that Putin emerged with St. Petersburg becoming his springboard to power.

According to Judah, the West liked the idea that Boris Yeltsin surrounded himself with young reformers, but in fact he brought the military and FSB into government.  Under Gorbachev they made up only 5% of government positions, by 1998 under Yeltsin it had climbed to 46%. (18)  Judah describes in detail how during Yeltsin’s reign the oligarchs emerged and ostensibly stole the Russian economy as ordinary Russians were losing their life’s savings.  With many feeling Russia was close to collapse the men around Yeltsin needed a protector who could win the next election.  This was the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin, then a young, impressive former KGB bureaucrat from St. Petersburg, first started to work in.  As Russian oil production declined by 50% and oil prices dropped by 60% state revenues were collapsing resulting in the default of Russian debt at a time when 40% of Russians were below the poverty line.  At the same time oligarchs threw money around resulting in an expansion of an urban middle class particularly in Moscow and consumerism that allowed politicians to reach their constituency.  A further stress on Yeltsin’s rule was the war in Chechnya as the election of 2000 approached.  The invasion of Chechnya catapulted Putin from a nobody into one of the most popular politicians in the country.  A series of domestic bombings furthered the need for a strong leader, who in this case was chosen by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, who “acted the part of a macho-savior in front of the cameras and his popularity exploded.” (33)  Putin was swept into power atop a shaky wave of nationalist fear and economic distress.

Putin’s first term was shaped by Yeltsin’s legacy and the problems he inherited, according to Judah he appeared as a “Sisyphean,” but it was Putin’s luck to take over just as an economic boom took off.  His first year in office saw a 10% growth rate thanks to a 75% lower exchange rate that fueled Russian exports and consumer spending.  In addition a tax reform program benefited business as did the recovery of the energy sector produced sustained GDP growth of 7% annually through 2008. (40-41)  At the same time as liberal economic reform was implemented the Kremlin clamped down on television, what Judah describes as the creation of a “videocracy” that projected Putin as a Russian hero and that Russia could never survive without him.  Putin would go to war with media oligarchs who he felt were a threat and by 2008 he controlled 90% of the Russian media.  According to Judah television created a cult of Putin as 98% of the population had no satellite or internet by 2008.  Telepopulism created a Putin majority and Putin was packaged as the “generous Putin” who paid for the “budgetniki,” people who were reliant on state salaries, pensions, and other benefits.  In a country where 53% of the people were on the state payroll in one form or another, Putin’s cult flourished.  In the midst of this process Putin turned more authoritarian as he imposed his version of consensus on the oligarchs, particularly in the energy sector, as oligarchs blocked any increase in taxes on oil profits.  Putin had little choice if he was to maintain his popularity through social spending as he needed the $2 billion in taxes that the oil oligarchs avoided paying.  A further threat to Putin was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was considered the richest man in Russia.  When Khodorkovsky entered politics and railed against the corruption that was built into the Russian economic system (30% of the state budget was lost to corruption).  Putin viewed this as a personal threat and imposed his will on all oligarchs, and in particular private oil production would fall from 90% to 45%, and by 2005 83.9% of all oil company profit went to the state.  Putin’s message was clear; oligarchs should stay out of politics.  Russia saw itself as the northern energy super power and that energy would now be used for geopolitical goals, an effective strategy today as the European countries refuse to risk a Russian energy cut off if they push too hard over the “invasion” of the Ukraine.  By 2008 Putin’s “authoritarian project” was in place as all funds that oligarchs had used to oppose Putin where now part of state revenues.  Despite Putin’s political success, corruption, terrorism, and bureaucratic incompetence remained.

As described, Judah has done an exceptional job explaining Putin’s origins and how he rose to power.  Further, he allows the reader to understand that once in power Putin was able to crush any hope of liberal economic reform or political change.  Judah is correct that as long as the energy sector flourished the Russian economy would do well, but if a crisis developed, Russia and Putin would be in trouble. No matter what the short term economic success Russia experienced, the cancer of corruption would dominate the Russian economic model and undermine any successes.  2008 brought a foreign policy success that would rattle the West and be a precursor of current events in the Ukraine.  A crisis arose in Russian areas of Georgia that provoked Russian military action.  The underlying cause of Russian action as described by John J. Mearsheimer in his new article in Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s fault,” is that the United States and Europe by expanding NATO membership to Russia’s doorstep overstepped the bounds that Putin could accept.  After the Baltic States gained NATO membership, Georgia and the Ukraine were seen as next.  What the West failed to realize is that the birthplace of Stalin, Georgia, and the Ukraine have historically been part of Russia and those areas had been seen as vital since the Tsarist times.  Putin’s successful occupation of Georgian territory only enhanced Putin’s reputation and popularity.  At the same time Putin decided not to run for reelection and allowed Dimitry Medvedev to assume the presidency.  Medvedev grew up in the “Putin political family” and had no other politically meaningful professional experience.” (170)  As 2008 was coming to an end it appeared that Putin was in total control of Russia and despite the lack of freedom, he brought the stability that Russians cherished.

(2011 Moscow demonstrations after Putin announced he would replace Medvedev as President)

That stability was broken in September, 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the United States and the resulting economic ripple that encompassed the world economy.  Russia’s situation was exacerbated because of the corruption that permeated Putin’s system.  Putin blamed the United States for Russia’s economic plight.  By 2009, the Russian economy had contracted by 8.9% as the Russian stock market lost 80% of its value, and oil prices temporarily declined by 70%. (175)  Medvedev identified Russia’s structural economic problems but could not do anything to modernize the system.  “By 2010 indicators showed that Russia was as corrupt as Papua New Guinea, with property rights of Kenya, as competitive as Sri Lanka.”  Russia was a society where everything had a price tag. (177)  Medvedev and Putin faced further problems when the government proved incompetent to deal with forest fires outside of Moscow.  What became Putin’s “Katrina,” highlighted a government that had “become a vertical of loyalty intertwined with a vertical corruption.” (185)  Putin’s sytem removed any incentive to be efficient and the government was unable to implement its policies beyond Moscow as it was over centralized.  On September 24, 2011 it was announced that Medvedev would not seek reelection and Putin would return.  This would spark a brief period of oppositional demonstrations who labeled Putin’s United Russia party as “the party of crooks and thieves.”  Though the slogan may have been accurate the newborn protest movement was “not ready to run into the Kremlin, as it could barely walk.  Without structure, without a policy plateform, it was not resistance ready to break through” and demand a recount when Putin was reelected by an inflated vote count of 15-20%. (248)

Judah provides a wonderful portrait of the Russian electorate and the different factions that existed.  As Luke Hardin wrote in The Guardian on June 27, 2013 “Moscow isn’t Russia: it is an affluent mega-city disconnected from the impoverished small towns where most Russians live.”  Judah feels that there is a degree of condescension in the opposition that helps explain their inability to gain support outside of Moscow.  Judah also includes a wonderful chapter entitled, “Moscow the Colonialist” where he describes in detail how Russians residing outside of their capital feel about their government and the lack of state resources that are afforded to them. Putin fought back with a conservative culture war.  Having lost the most advanced part of the nation, Putin would direct his energies to winning over the most backward part of the nation.  Judah describes Putin’s spending as that of a “Gulf Sheik,” as 53% of the country was on the state payroll as pensioners, state employees, factory workers, war veterans and bureaucrats, he had no choice but to meet their needs.  Pensions rose by 10%, $613 billion was allocated for a ten year military program, and another $160 billion worth of giveaways.” (261)  The question is how long can Putin maintain such a system when a drop in oil or gas prices could cripple the economy.  If one thinks of the current Ukrainian crisis as a vehicle to take people’s attention away from economic issues it makes even more sense.  Putin travels all over Russia visiting areas liberal politicians would never have thought of.  He has snuffed out “a not-quite revolution,” and sees little support outside Moscow for a move away from his program of economic stability.  Judah is correct in stating that the mass consent Putin enjoyed his first two terms as President is gone forever, but as Luke Harding has concluded, “Russians have fallen out of love with Putin but are unpersuaded that the opposition can deliver anything better.”  Judah concludes that sooner or later an earthquake may bring down the fragile Kremlin.  But then again, it might not happen at all.  If one wants to make some sense out of Putin’s reign, Judah’s marvelous work of political science is well worth a look.

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