Yesterday was the 25th Anniversary of the “August Putsch” or the August 19 Coup of 1991, when the world was stunned by the news of a coup against the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That coup was an attempt by the hardliners from the Communist Party, who wanted to save the faltering communist regime from the hands of the reform minded Mikhail Gorbachev. Although the coup failed within a couple of days, it left an indelible mark eventually leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union and emergence of a new, and a presumably democratic Russia together with fourteen other independent states.
Now that a quarter of a century have past, this is a good occasion to ask the question – what has changed in Russia since then?
A realistic reply would be: almost everything and yet nearly nothing.
No doubt, Russia has moved away in many aspects from its Soviet era practices and transformed into a totally different country. An economy based on free market had shown its ability to survive crises without falling apart. It ranks today 6th in the world by the size of GDP. Even though Russia’s GDP per capita at $9,000 is significantly lower than even that of Portugal’s, which is the poorest among the Western European countries, Russians now enjoy an unprecedented level of material affluence relative to their past. There is particularly an abundance of food supply never seen before by the Russians.
The level of freedom of speech that is now available in Russia is unparalleled in the country’s national history. The increasingly materialistic society has also accommodated freedom of movement for the Russians both within and outside of the country. These are things that other parts of the West take for granted, yet these remained elusive for the Russians for centuries.
What the ghost of a Soviet era ideologue would see if he were to visit Russia today?
Now let’s imagine for a second that a communist ideologue from the Brezhnev era of the 1970’s is visiting the present day Moscow. To his horror he will find himself in a distinctively capitalist city with a cosmopolitan touch, billions of dollars changing hands, streets full of foreign cars and lavishly dressed people, well-stocked groceries, cozy restaurants, shopping centers, and of course fancy nightclubs frequented by the oligarchs. Even in other parts of the country outside of Moscow, the Russia of the Brezhnev era will be sharply in contrast to its current conspicuously materialistic present.
But if the same Brezhnev era ideologue were to visit his familiar corridors of power in and around Kremlin, after meeting a few bureaucrats, he will soon figure out that his Communist yesteryears are very much preserved in just one place, and that is the theater of power in today’s Russia.
The Brezhnev era ideologue will be glad to hear today’s plutocrats and bureaucrats still addressing each others as “Comrades”.
The ideologue from the past will also rejoice the fact that news found on any of the Government supported TV channels still sound refreshingly the way they used to sound back in the 70’s.
He will soon be content knowing that speculations around the upcoming American and European social upheaval and imminent economic collapse is still the mainstay of Russian analysts and commentators, just like it used to be the case some 50 years ago mimicking the official propaganda handbooks.
The ideologue may conclude that, the coup against Gorbachev may have failed some 25 years ago, but it may have won its victory as of now.
So what went wrong?
The making of a new economy, which started almost 25 years ago, was not matched by shaping a new political landscape. Initial 3-year mandate to implement reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union was soon cut short to a year after President Yeltsin gave in to pressure from staunch anti-liberal gosudarstvenniks. These were the folks who favored Government control over economy and politics — since gosudarstvo means “state”. The gosudarstvenniks disdained the fact that their influence slipped away from their hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although many in the liberal camp in Russia believed that the new economy alone could fundamentally change Russia and create the foundation for new democratic parties and groups to flourish, what was missing from this equation is that decades of propaganda and isolation are hard to be overcome quickly.
Despite ups and downs, Russia in the beginning of the millennium was indeed ready to embrace democracy and market economy. The nation was generally upbeat and confident about its future. Young, easy-going and seemingly apolitical Putin as President became a symbol of that aspiration when he first came to power. There were no talks about Crimea back then, nor were ideas about breaking away from international agreements or standing up to the West.
Russia’s divisive and anti-Western policies since Putin’s ascend to Presidency materially changed the path taken by Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union. His pivot away from a European styled liberal democratic system is something that is bound to redefine the Russia of the near future. To a certain extent, the Putin’s story in Russia can be compared with Brexit, where the British politicians bet on Britain’s and Europe’s fortunes in order to safeguard their own.
What to expect in the next 25 years?
Despite being a traditionalist society, Russians prefer change when they believe they are approaching a stalemate.
The next quarter of a century is likely to be tumultuous for the Russians. The country is already in the midst of a crisis due to a the stalled economy, declining and aging population, and falling income levels.The economy had started to tumble even before the oil and gas prices began to fall.
Any economic reform to be successful now depends on political change which should encompass cuts in military expenditures, limits on Government size and role, broader powers to regional authorities, protection of property rights, and establishment of a fair judiciary. President Putin is not ready to embrace all of these ambitions, although he is expected to be elected for another 6-year term in early 2018.
If things in Russia continue on their unique Russian ways, it is only expected that Putin will block any serious reform until he finds an acceptable successor who will guarantee him personal safety.
Despite high hopes of the early 1990s, Russia’s current economic and political prospects appear to be gloomy. The pivot taken during the 2000s is fast approaching a blind alley, forcing Russia to make either new choices or rather return to its older tracks prior to the 1990s.