Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Big bit of history repeating. Or is it?

For Vladimir Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century. Putin's long game is to rebuild Soviet power as Russian power, ensuring that the mistakes of the Soviet leadership are not repeated. He looks carefully at what worked and what didn't; what tools from the USSR's armoury were effective in the furtherance of Soviet power, and which of its activities turned out to be counterproductive.

Putin understands that Stalin-style mass oppression doesn't work. Why execute and incarcerate millions, if selective intimidation of a small, dissenting minority will do the trick more effectively? Why make enemies of the pliant masses when they can be held in thrall with cheap vodka and dumb-ass TV leavened with noxious propaganda and outright lies?

Putin's greatest fear is the regime-changing crowd, which he witnessed in East Germany in 1989, which he saw in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2005. Currently, a wave of under-reported strikes are occurring across Russia, led by public-sector workers who've not been paid, and by factory workers whose factories have been shut down due to a shortage of orders. These are happening in provincial cities and do not concern Putin. These protests will never threaten his position. Massive demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people strong, in the centre of Moscow, however, will. So Putin's focus is to ensure they will never happen. Intimidation is the principal tool to keep the dissident activists away from Moscow's streets. And by claiming that dissidents are mentally ill, the Putin regime is harking back to tried-and-tested Soviet techniques.

Above all, Putin understands that power is not to be shared or given away. This was the key mistake of the last tsar and the last secretary-general of the Communist Party of the USSR. Power must remain concentrated in one strong pair of hands.

Keeping Soviet citizens cooped up in their town of residence, and ultimately, inside the barbed-wire confines of the Bolshaya Zona, the wider USSR outside of the Gulag, was also a mistake, Putin realises. Let those who can afford foreign travel do so. If they don't like Russia, let them leave. For good. Simple. The reason that the USSR didn't allow ordinary Soviet citizens to travel abroad was a) because  it was feared that if they could, they'd all pack up and go, and b) because they'd see that the dream of the wonderful life afforded to them by the USSR was one big lie. Putin has no problem with dissidents leaving. His people know where they've migrated to, should they ever get too uppity. And in terms of b), Putin's propaganda strategy turns to old Soviet model on its head.

Rather than saying that everything in Russia's rosy (thanks to the internet, everyone can see its shortcomings), Putin is saying that the West is rotten, morally damaged and evil. He is saying that Russia is suffering because of the West's insatiable desire to conquer Russia - rather than point to its feeble, venal institutions, its monoculture economy or its underinvested infrastructure. And mixing this propaganda message about Fascists in Kiev backed by the US and EU into a blend of reality TV and raunchy entertainment shows, the bulk of the nation has evidently swallowing the lie.

Gorbachev's clamp-down on alcoholism didn't work. So let the masses drown their sorrows in subsidised vodka. OK, Russia has the lowest male life expectancy outside of sub-Saharan Africa? Better an inebriated nation than a nation of people soberly demanding their rights to a better life. In February, Putin lowered the minimum price of vodka.

Incidentally, obituaries noting the recent death of Singapore's founding statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, suggest that his achievements in propelling the city state to world-class prosperity are prompting authoritarian leaders the world over to say - 'this model works'. But for Mr Putin to make the comparison between himself and Lee Kuan Yew would be entirely fallacious. The reason that Singapore works is because it has a strong public administration (well-paid and incorruptible); because it is one of the very best places in the world to run a business (entrepreneurs know they will never be shaken down by venal bureaucrats or by the local mafia); and because it has rock-solid property rights. While Lee Kuan Yew tolerated opposition politicians about as much as Putin does, Singapore's leader understood that private-sector business must be allowed to flourish unhindered and that the public administration must be efficient and trustworthy.

In Putin's Russia, home-grown private business was never allowed to get off the ground and establish a solid bedrock for economic growth, akin to Germany's Mittelstand. And the public administration - from traffic cops to buildings inspectors, from customs officials to hospital bosses, live from the baksheesh they collect, passing on up a given percentage up the ladder, which reaches right up to the top. This system worked in Ukraine until the people there got totally sick and tired of it, and overthrew it. Putin fears the same may happen in Russia (albeit the system in Ukraine was more blatant, less sophisticated).

It is only a robust and thriving private sector, based on an unshakable faith in the Rule of Law and property rights, that will ever get Russia's economy into a healthy state. That takes, as we have seen in Poland and across the other post-2004 EU member states, a minimum of 20 years. But only if the institutions function properly and the rule of law is observed.

The Soviet Union's planned economy was a mistake that Putin wants to avoid. But his tendencies to micro-manage keep pulling him back from a liberalising direction. A centrally planned economy based on slave or semi-slave labour can just about keep its head above water in a world dominated by heavy industry. But in today's globalised, knowledge-based economy, central planning is as useful as the Holy Inquisition. The Kremlin cannot centrally decree a Russian Apple, Microsoft or Google. You can force an informatyk to write you 1,000 lines of code a day, but you can do nothing to ensure that it's good code.

Since the debacle over the Bekaa valley in 1982, the largest air battle ever fought by jet aircraft, the Israeli Air Force, with its US-built F-15s and F-16s, shot down between 82 and 86 Syrian Air Force Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s for the loss of four of Israeli jets. This was a wake-up call to the Soviet Politburo - while the Soviet fighters had faster climb rates and were more manoeuvrable, as well as being cheaper and easier to maintain in the field, their avionics, weapons guidance systems and radars - dependent on computer hardware and software - were clearly inferior.

This realisation - that future wars would be won by the country with the superior information technology - led to glasnost, perestroika and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union. The big question is - has Putin taken this lesson on board? As a Chekist, he understands the concept of the hybrid war and the role of maskirovka. Lie, disinform, deceive, camouflage, distort. This works well against a weak and poorly-trained army and a gullible public opinion at home and in the West. But in the event of Putin's bayonet striking steel, would he back down?

The firmer the West is with Putin, the less likely he is to keep pushing. The West won the Cold War because it was prepared to stand up to the relentless bullying of the USSR throughout the decisive decade of the 1980s.The question is - what lessons from that period has Putin learnt, and what lessons have the peoples, and the leaders of the West learnt?

This time two years ago:
Sunshine, snow, April

This time four years ago:
In vino veritas

This time five years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time seven years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki from the air


Bob said...

No one seems to have any jajka - what has happened?

We are going to get scrambled into an omelet by Putin.

Alexander said...

With the half hearted sanctions by the EU, it is the Ukraine that gets the biggest economic hit.
Russia is still buying abroad and in the west: arranging new high speed rail connections to China and Kazhachstan. Fruit is exported via free trading partner Turkey, and the lists goed on and on.
The EU sanctions will be lifted soon without any solution for the East Ukraine or Crimea.
It shows the EU is all about the economic interests of a few countries, and nothing about democracy or peace.
The EU thinks the size of bananas is their business but the victoms of flight MH17 are not. They are not refered to as Europeans. Making money seems more important. The inheritence taxes are payed in euros though.
Earlier this week the Dutch government had to reveal they knew about Russia shooting down planes in the East of the Ukraine, as did other EU leaders.
Blaming Russia would have serius consequences and cost money, so our leaders decided to look away. The international press in Europe also seems not interested in publishing .
In the end, I’m afraid Russia will win, and Poland will be the alone again, as my Polish inlaws put it.
And because of the EU, maybe even without the USA.

Best regards, Alexander

Andrzej K said...

@ Alexander.

The problem is with the EU that the member states have ceded to the Commission issues including the shape of bananas. Foreign policy (including sanctions other than import duty issues) still remains within the remit of individual member states. Which means that concensus needs to reached on such issues.

What the solution is no one knows. And I guess as ever the French are still not willing to die for Gdańsk!