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A strong line required

Putin and the Rise of Russia, by Michael Stuermer

29 December 2008

12:00 AM

29 December 2008

12:00 AM

Putin and the Rise of Russia Michael Stuermer

Weidenfeld, pp.253, 20

Putin and the Rise of Russia, by Michael Stuermer

For many years, Professor Michael Stuermer has been one of the West’s most respected authorities both on Russia and on Germany. As at home in English as in his native German, he has pursued not only an academic career, but has brought lustre to the usually grubby trade of journalism as chief correspondent for Die Welt. Few can be as well qualified to write about contemporary Russia, to analyse the extraordinary phenomenon of Putin or to add a late addendum on Putin’s successor, Dmitri Medvedev.

The resulting book is authoritative, readable and concise. Stuermer traces Putin’s rapid rise via Sobchak’s mayoral office in St Petersburg and Borodin’s holding company for foreign assets to Yeltsin’s ‘family’ at the Kremlin. The new Tsar emerges as a man at home with power who has a strong analytical grasp of the vast difficulties Russia must surmount in order merely to survive, let alone to achieve his primary objective: stability.

The basic facts are depressing. Perhaps the most important is that the population is shrinking, and shrinking rapidly. As Stuermer puts it: ‘Russia, in the 19th century a land of infinite population growth, is now a land of elderly women, mostly widows, as men tend to die in their mid- fifties.’ Putin has said that they die of ‘excessive drinking and work accidents resulting from booze’. Every year the population shrinks by between 800,000 and 900,000. By 2050, some ‘pessimists in Moscow’ are forecasting that the population will consist of fewer than 100 million souls. What makes the situation worse is that so many skilled workers are emigrating, dramatically exacerbating Russia’s shortage of highly skilled labour.

The only part of the population that is growing is Islamic. By 2030, Islamics will comprise over a third of the population. As Stuermer points out, one of the ways that Russia benefited from the collapse of the Soviet empire was that such a high proportion of the Soviet Union’s Islamic population lived in the states that became independent. The demographic crisis is ensuring that Russia has merely delayed the necessity of confronting the Islamic question within its borders.

Russia is also a country that labours under the curse of oil. Stuermer rightly emphasises repeatedly how intimately Russia’s international power and the stability of her governments are entwined with the price of oil and gas. Oil and gas are the shock weapons which Russia uses to intimidate the near abroad and the European Union, an institution for which, as Stuermer points out, the Russians entertain an understandable contempt. However, as with other major suppliers of hydrocarbons, the curse — ‘the corrupting influence of too much money in too few hands’ — lulls its victims into reliance on the seductive slurp of petro-dollars alone. For a country like Russia, enmired in corruption and with a tradition of authoritarian government, recently reinforced by the return of the Checkists under Putin to nearly absolute power, this is doubly dangerous. A modern economy, as China is discovering, cannot function and evolve without the rule of law, a free press and parliamentary institutions which hold the government to account. However accurately Putin analyses his country’s weaknesses, it is impossible to impose a new mentality of individual liberty from the top down by authoritarian diktat. In this the efforts of Peter the Great, of Stalin and of Putin as described in the celebrated Oleg Schwartsman interview, give off a similar whiff of tragedy.

The recent collapse in the price of oil does not bode well for the stability of either the Russian government or the Russian economy. Medvedev recently announced plans to the Federal Assembly to amend the 1993 constitution and in particular to extend the presidential term from four to six years. Observers have generally interpreted this proposal as a precursor to Medvedev’s own resignation, paving the way for Putin’s return to the Presidency, perhaps, if the changes can be rushed through in time, as early as the spring of 2009. Putin could then reign as President for another 12 years without breaking the rules. A prolonged world recession of the kind we are now facing does not signal a stable oil price at Putin’s preferred level of $50-$60 a barrel. So, he will probably ramp up the confrontations with his European neighbours which we have witnessed over the last few years. We have not yet seen a repeat of the cyber attacks on Estonia and Georgia. However, Medvedev accompanied his announcement of constitutional change with a renewed bout of anti-American rhetoric and a threat to deploy SS-26 missiles in Kaliningrad if America deployed anti-Iranian ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Sabre-rattling abroad helps to unite an unstable nation against a foreign enemy.

So what should our attitude be to this Checkist Russia, this mixture of nuclear-tipped, authoritarian state capitalism and rampant consumerism? Stuermer is clear. We should engage and, essentially, he is right. We have an interest in a stable and peaceful Russia and, even if we cannot hope to impose our own ideas of government on a proud and humiliated nation, we should insist that the rules under which we trade with Russia are transparent and up to Western standards, and that the rules of investment, both outward and inward, are of an equal rigour. Russia’s economy would greatly benefit from the resulting increased level of confidence among traders and investors. She might even eventually become less prone to murdering her former nationals in London or taking a leaf out of Andropov’s book when dealing with the near abroad.

The difficulty is that the nations of Europe all seem too feeble to insist. Instead, they scramble to sign up for oil and gas supplies and allow companies like Gazprom and Rosneft to exert undue influence among the markets and politicians of the West. Germany is one of the greatest culprits. It has allowed Russia’s Baltic pipeline to the West to bypass Poland and the Baltic States and permitted its former Chancellor to take the Russian rouble. Meanwhile, the rest of us have colluded with Germany in relegating the Nabucco pipeline, which would not touch Russian territory, to the back burner. How ill it behoves us to complain about energy blackmail by the Russians. It only encourages them to behave badly and to redouble their efforts in post-Soviet adventurism. In the medium term, they will pay the price by remaining a secret-policeman state, instead of building a free and prosperous society and honouring the great traditions of a leading European culture.

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