Staunton, December 4 – President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly is the subject of intense interest for the light it will shed on where the Kremlin leader is headed next. But there is one question Russians are asking that he cannot possibly answer without calling into question whether he should be the person to lead that country into the future.
That question, prompted by the current collapse of oil prices and the ruble, and now being raised by ever more commentators, is this: why did Russia miss the opportunity it had to use its enormous income from the sale of raw materials over the last six years to transform the country’s economy and thus reduce its dependence on the vagaries of international markets?
Among those who have posed the question most clearly is Yury Pronko, an award-winning Russian journalist who covers business and financial questions for Moscow outlets. But he is far from alone in doing so.
(And it is even implicit in a joke now circulating in Russia. ‘What do Putin, the price of oil, and the ruble exchange rate all have in common?’ the question goes. The answer: ‘They will all be 63 next year.’ Putin will mark his 63rd birthday. Oil will fall to 63 US dollars a barrel. And the ruble will be no better than 63 to the dollar as well.)
Pronko addresses the question directly: “why did we miss those possibilities which we had over the last six years, from the time of the last global crisis? … Why was nothing done in order to reduce to a minimum the dependence of the country on global prices for raw materials? Why did we turn into ‘outcasts’” with whom no one wants to deal?
The answer lies, he suggests, in the desire of elites to enrich themselves here and now and the population to see its short-term standard of living rise, with neither group giving much if any thought to the longer term. As a result, he says, Russia during this period lived in the condition of “’lethargic sleep.’”
And consequently, he writes, the dependence of the country rose dramatically. “Instead of innovations and modernization, instead of a bet on small and mid-sized business was chosen the conception of ‘a besieged fortress’ where so-called ‘institutions of development’ – state companies, state banks and state corporations – played ‘first fiddle.’”
Moreover, because the rest of the world wasn’t “sleeping,” Russia fell further and further behind. It “excluded itself from the Western community” and refocused on China, the result of its own decisions that left it trapped in a corner despite the regime’s assurances that “nothing terrible has happened.”
“Why did [Russians] miss those chances which [they] had? Pronko asks rhetorically and replies that “the answer will be harsh: because the current authorities live day by day … and the citizens” were prepared to trade getting scraps from “the nobleman’s table’ in exchange for ‘not raising such questions.”
“Why,” the financial journalist continues, “did we forget about the causes which led to the destruction of our Fatherland at the beginning of the 20th century? Why didn’t we learn the lesson of history? Then too it seemed that all was wonderful and that the country was dynamically developing, but the end was fatal.”
The current situation is in no way different, he argues.
Indeed, it may be even worse because the rest of the world is going through an economic revolution in which wealth will come not from production of goods and services but rather from the development and dissemination of ideas. The rest of the world is “rushing ahead,” but Russia is simply “proud to be a raw materials supplier not only to Europe but now to Asia as well.”
“Such ‘stability’ has already led the country to a complete stop,” and Russians need to ask why and to change course.
“Economics, finance, and the budgetary process all depend on the outside world with which we have decided to get into an argument by defending our ephemeral geopolitical ambitions.” And Russia will have to pay for that dearly now and in the future.
“Is there a way out? Yes, but then the authorities must sacrifice their high ratings and begin a global perestroika both of the country’s economy and the state as a whole.” That is not now on offer, he suggests, and may not be anytime soon.
Pronko ends by expressing the hope that Russia will be given another chance, “possibly its last,” and that it will not miss it as it has these last six years. But it seems unlikely, although the journalist does not say so, that Putin can either admit what he has done wrong in the past or change course for a different and less disturbing future.