Thursday, November 01, 2007

From Russia With Bluff

Perhaps the worst thing that has happened in the world political landscape since 1992 has been the loss of hope. It was 1992 that marked a new political era - the post Cold War world was dawning. America had elected a baby boomer, the bright and charming Bill Clinton and democracy was breaking down the Iron Curtain. Here we are 16 years later and the the one nation that had the most to gain when the Soviet era ended has come full circle. So long modern Russia - we hardly knew 'ya.

I personally have always been fascinated by Russia. Maybe it was because growing up in the 60's and 70's the truth of the mysterious "enemy" rarely eked out beyond the mutual propaganda machines. What we knew of the Russians was that they excelled at Olympic sports and nuclear missiles.

In my idealistic youth I remember thinking that both society's were engaged in a wasteful and pointless arms race that brought no value to the world. (I still believe that to some degree). I mean, if only Nixon and Brezhnev could have gotten together and just smoked a little weed like me and my friends surely they could have found a way to stop all that silly talk of mutually assured destruction, right?

We all knew the Russian's produced as brilliant and talented people as the West did. It was a shame that there was no Russian equivalent of Hollywood or Harvard, baseball or Bell Labs. So much wasted human potential languished in the gulags and the tenements. The world may never know the wonders that might have been born to Mother Russia...

The lucky ones escaped over the wall and contributed to the eventual victory of the West. When the Wall came down I remember thinking that a period of greatness would soon be upon humanity. Indeed, many of the former Soviet satellite states have done very well. Hope is still lives in those places where Moscow's long shadow once darkened the sky. Unfortunately they are all looking over their shoulders with trepidation these days as Vlad The Consolidator turns back the clock.

Vladimir Putin is said to have a 80% approval rating at home so obviously the Russian people feel comfortable that Vlad won't be bringing back the firing squads. Putin, a former senior KGB officer, knows all about deception and perception so he sees the necessity of acknowledging the repression of the Soviet era even as he reapplies the totalitarian yoke.

In a recent speech said Putin of the dissidents his own KGB put to death: "these were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They were the pride of the nation. And, of course, over many years we still remember this tragedy. We need to do a great deal to ensure that this is never forgotten."

Vlad was clearly trying to assure the people that nothing like this could happen in his Russia... Mikhail Khordokovsky, the former oil tycoon might differ with Putin on that subject. He is currently breaking rocks at a remote Siberian penal colony after being found guilty of politically motivated fraud charges.

Is the notion that Russia under Putin could return to the worst excesses of Stalin way off base? Probably... If for no other reason than mass communications would make it impossible to keep it hidden now. Unfortunately the last sixteen years have not been good for the average Russian. The gap between the rich and the poor in Russia renders anything John Edwards has to say about the Two Americas a riotous joke. Much of this can be put at the feet of Boris Yeltsin who failed to act boldly and decisively while the iron was hot. Russian history had failed to prepare the average person for a life of personal liberty much like it is in the Islamic world. Basic societal foundations like banking, commerce and business processes just didn't exist and a thriving black market was already operating in that space. Corruption still rules the day. Dictators thrive in a corrupt and dysfunctional society.

Putin is tapping in to the one sense of pride Russians felt about their country during the Soviet era. Having a military machine that the West feared and respected was all they could ever claim put Russia on equal footing with the modern world.

Flush with oil wealth he has stolen for the government Putin will now have the funds to rebuild and reassert the pride of Mother Russia. This is not a good thing. As if we needed another reason to hasten the end of the oil age.