Staunton, May 31 – In the 1950s, North Korea was developing rapidly and South Korea was extremely poor, but over the succeeding decades, North Korea cut itself off from the world, became ever more authoritarian, and bankrupted itself with massive military spending. South Korea did just the reverse and is now the economic powerhouse on the peninsula.
Putin’s Russia is on the same path as North Korea, an isolated and increasingly impoverished regime that can take pride only in its army and nuclear weapons, while Ukraine has a chance to emerge from its current poverty because it is democratic and open to the world.
That suggestive comparison is offered by Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of Kazan’s “Zvezda Povolzhya,” in a lead article in the current issue of his newspaper [no. 19 (699), May 29-June 4, 2014, p. 1].
“It has become commonplace in Russia to write about Ukraine as ‘a non-existing state,’ to point to its divisions and its poverty, to suggest that it has no future and to suggest that Russia is a successful one, the independent editor writes. But such commentaries are wrong on at least two grounds.
On the one hand, claims that Ukrainians “cannot create their own state is an openly racist thesis,” one based on the assumption that some peoples can build a state while others cannot. And on the other, the jury is still very much out on whether Ukraine with all its troubles will fail and equally on whether the Russian Federation will succeed.
For many reasons, Russia’s prospects despite the successes it has had so far and despite its impressive military seem as bleak as those of North Korea given Pyongyang’s choices while Ukraine’s prospects despite its economic and political problems seem more like those of South Korea of a half century ago
What Russia should be doing to avoid that fate, Akhmetov says, is to focus on “the development of its internal space and to Europeanize the European part of Russia. Instead, Akhmetov says, Kremlin policies are leading to the withering away of Central Russia and the flow of money and people out of most of the country to Moscow. As a result, the Moscow urban agglomeration is set to grow from 25 million to 40 million over the next 30 years with incomes there ten times that of the rest of the country.
The Russian state “is destroying itself from within and not because of foreign threats,” he argues. Expensive shows like the Sochi Olympics which no one remembers only a few months afterwards take money from the kind of social and infrastructure spending that the population of the Russian Federation needs.
And if Putin follows the Anschluss of Crimea with the annexation of Donetsk, the militarization and isolation of the country are likely to be “just as destructive for Russia as was the introduction of forces into Czechoslovakia in the times of the USSR.”
Rulers often think that “politics is outside of morality and that the end justifies the means, but this is not so,” Akhmetov says. Amoral or immoral actions may win short-term benefits, but they almost always will become self-destructive, contributing to more and more errors and ultimate defeats.
If Russia continues on its militarist course and builds up its enormous military as Vladimir Putin has promised, it may be able to intimidate some of its neighbors and others as well, but it will do so only at the cost of destroying the moral basis of society. Russia’s current leaders should remember that the USSR could not save itself despite all its military power.
“The North Korean model of development will lead Russia to analogous destructive consequences,” he says. China is too integrated with the American market to want or be able to save Russia. Instead, Beijing almost certainly and within 20 years will take Siberia, citing “the Crimean precedent” Putin has created.
The Ukrainian crisis is not only isolating Russia from the world but, by creating the sense of Russia as “a besieged fortress,” also destroying what is left of federalism by promoting a “hyper-centralized economy” which will become ever less capable of promoting development and by sparking witch hunts which will undermine any chance of democracy.
Akhmetov concludes that the situation Putin has led Russia into cannot last long: there are just too many forces that will undermine him and the kind of country he wants. But, the Kazan editor asks rhetorically, does Russia really need “a new 1917?”
That can be avoided in Moscow changes course, if it decentralizes, democratizes, and addresses its domestic problems rather than dreaming about being a great power. A real “great power” today, Akhmetov says, is a country like Sweden which hasn’t fought a war for 200 years even though in the 18th century it has “the strongest army in the world.”