Despite all the weaknesses of its development model, this country is viewed as a rising economy, with a prospect of becoming an economic power in the future.
The wave of riots and revolutions that has swept the Greater Middle East has again boosted oil prices for long. My reaction was, “Gosh, my country is lucky again!”
And I decided to write a serious piece about this almost unprecedented phenomenon in the history of Russia over the last 100 years. This country has met with luck. But this luck is double-edged.
Almost throughout the entire 20th century – from 1914 – Russia experienced a historical catastrophe and its consequences. In retrospect, the year 2000 may be seen as a turning point in its history. Russia has hit a luck streak. The phenomenal and long-term popularity of Presidents Vladimir Putin and now Dmitry Medvedev cannot be explained by their personal qualities, or by the country’s economic recovery, or propaganda manipulation, or the elimination of political rivals. Russia has hit a luck streak. It has begun to win, even though these may be token and, possibly, even Pyrrhic victories. But formerly, Russia had a long streak of defeats, humiliations and, most importantly, poverty.
From a rapidly degrading country, which was on the verge of disintegration and which the world rightly treated with ill-concealed disdain, Russia has turned into the world’s third greatest power which weighs on the “world scale” many times more than one would expect, considering the share of its GNP in the global economy, the quantity and quality of its population, the level of its technological development, and many other formal indicators.
Of course, the latent reversal of the catastrophe began with the revolutionary 1990s, which at first nearly took it to its logical end. The break-up of the historical Russian Empire could be followed by a breakup of Russia. But the 1990s laid the foundation for Russia’s recovery from a dead-end economic system and the fatal confrontation with nearly affluent and developed countries of the world. At the same time, Russia has retained major outward signs of power – a seat on the UN Security Council and the nuclear-missile potential. Credit for this should be given to Boris Yeltsin, many of his colleagues, and thousands of Russian citizens – scientists, engineers, the military, and diplomats – who were utterly devoted to their country. Also, Russia did not put its oil and gas industry under foreign ownership and control, although such a prospect was quite likely. The oil and gas sector served as the basis of the country’s economic recovery in the next century, although Russians who know how things stand in this sector are not at all happy about the efficiency of its management and of the use of its revenues.
Russia has also retained other traditional symbols of power, including the history of a great European nation and, for some time, even a superpower. None of the other successors to the Soviet Union has inherited this history. Russia has also retained the great culture which was created by all the peoples of the Russian Empire. For example, Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol is the greatest Russian writer – at least, in my opinion. The current governing class in Russia is apparently far from this culture, though, and cannot actively use it. Yet culture continues propping up Russia’s international positions, albeit passively. Another asset that Russia has retained is the Russian language, although the sphere of its use as one of the world’s major languages has been reduced.
The country’s restoration in the 2000s was largely man-made, although the price of the recovery proved to be very high.
It looks as if the bureaucracy was told: “You may steal but you must revive the ruined country.” And it partially restored it – and gave rise to the current omnipotent corruption in government.
Moscow lost the first Chechen war politically but won the Second – again at a horrible price. Very few people believed in this “victory.” Almost everyone in the world predicted Russia’s defeat, and very many people wanted it. But Chechnya has remained part of Russia. A chain reaction of disintegration was averted. Russia has proved its will and ability to defend its territorial integrity, and its right to be called a state. Symbolically, Russia scored this victory at the beginning of the new millennium, when all great powers were defeated in wars they had launched. By the end of the decade, in August 2008, Russia scored one more victory – at a low price this time. Having defeated Georgia, backed by the United States and NATO, Russia has proved its political ability to give a firm rebuff to aggressors. Also, the victory in the Caucasus stopped NATO’s further enlargement, which might have brought big trouble, if not a big war.
Russian diplomacy has also become very skillful. In the early 2000s, it quelled the desire for open revenge for the humiliations of the 1980s-1990s. After September 11, 2001, Moscow stretched a helping hand to the U.S. It also proposed rapprochement to the European Union. At the same time, Russia firmly and consistently revised the rules of the game that had been imposed on it in the years of its revolutionary collapse. The revision culminated in Vladimir Putin’s Munich Speech in 2007 and in Dmitry Medvedev’s tough response in August 2008. But even before that, Russian diplomacy ceased to be revisionist and became cynical and pragmatic. And it remains so to this day.
Russia, which became somewhat richer and which reduced – through limiting democracy – the ability of the population and political forces to demand partition of income, paid off its debts and built up the world’s third largest financial reserves, which it now could use for aid and subsidies. The country launched a real military reform which, even in case of partial success, promises the creation of effective general-purpose forces. The construction of such forces in a state which had proven its readiness to use force was another factor in the strengthening of Russia’s positions.
And then, a rare stroke of luck helped Russia return to the top league. A new round of globalization, a large-scale expansion of the world market – by billions of people and dozens of countries, the ensuing continuous economic growth, and the new industrial revolution in Asia brought about a sharp increase in the demand for and prices of energy, other mineral resources, and metals – the traditional items of Russia’s present exports, which had replaced even more traditional products – resin, flax, hemp, sable furs, ship timber, and lard. The demand for food increased as well. Russia obtained a market for its products and became an exporter. Its extensive fertile soil and water resources may make it one among two or three major producers and exporters of food in the world.
The increased demand for energy, minerals and food and the growing fresh water shortage again made the territory where these resources are located a valuable geopolitical asset.
In the 1980s and the 1990s, one had the impression that the most important thing was people and the ability to produce high-tech goods, even pure information. The territory seemed to be no longer important, or at least it was presented as such. Even in Russia there appeared theorists who seriously spoke of the need to get rid of “the territorial curse” and even of the desirability of the country’s fragmentation.
The beginning of the 2000s saw the collapse of the technology-heavy NASDAQ stock index. It turned out that the new world needed also traditional products and resources. Territory was again viewed as a source of strength, not weakness.
The increased global demand for raw materials and ecology caused economic growth in Russia, which – despite rampant corruption, extortions and embezzlement – raised the living standards of Russians who, after 90 years of privation, could enjoy at least modest consumerism. The social basis of government strengthened, as well as its perception by the outside world.
Throughout the larger part of the last decade – until 2008-2009 – Russia, despite the weaknesses of its development model, was viewed by reputed experts as an economically rising nation, with a prospect of becoming an economic power in the future.
Russia was also lucky that its traditional rivals became weaker. The past decade highlighted the weakness of the European Union. The EU integration project was hit by yet another crisis. The EU’s foreign-policy influence began to rapidly diminish. As Russia and the EU were in a period of keen rivalry for the Soviet legacy, when the EU tried to preserve the teacher-apprentice model of their relations, which had taken shape in the 1990s, while Russia actively sought to change this model, the European Union’s weakness was tactically advantageous to Russia. Against the background of a politically helpless Brussels – which tied the hands of great European capitals, Moscow – which had restored its sovereignty – obviously won, although this luck risk turning into bad luck. The weakness of Europe, whose magnetism decreased, also weakened modernization impulses in Russia. The camp of Russian pro-European modernizers, which had already received a heavy blow as a result of NATO enlargement waves, weakened still more.
The past decade saw the weakening of one more player, whom Russia viewed as its main traditional rival. Intoxicated by its own successes, the United States got involved in two wars and lost them politically. These wars tied its hands, while the defeats depreciated the huge U.S. investments in military might, which had been viewed as overwhelming.
Then the economic crisis of 2008 followed, which reduced the attractiveness of the American development model. The virtual loss suffered by America was much greater than its actual losses.
In addition, the U.S., bogged down in several almost hopeless conflicts – not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and the chronic Arab-Israeli conflict which reached yet another deadlock – found itself in serious need of help from Russia, which increased the latter’s international weight still further.
The weakness of others became the source of Moscow’s higher influence.
But Russia’s luck does not stop here. It seems that even the rapid strengthening of China plays into Russia’s hands. Russia has established friendly relations with that country. Other nations fear a further rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. This factor broadens Russia’s room for maneuver. A uniquely lucky situation has emerged. Russia’s competitors are either weakened or friendly, and it is on Russia that the solution of many issues, important to them, now depends.
Finally, Russia is simply having an incredible streak of luck. The Western elites through its mass media have accused Russia – in many respects rightly – that it is practicing 19th-century diplomacy and using outdated notions and methods. This criticism is somewhat hypocritical. Everyone uses old methods and notions, although in a disguised way, and everyone creates and maintains “spheres of special interests,” without naming them so.
But the main thing is that Russian politics, old-fashioned in many ways, is not outdated but post-modernist, corresponding to the 21st-century realities.
Globalization has made people and corporations much more vulnerable to external influence. Both societies and businesses have appealed to their states for help, despite the fact that the latter have weakened. States now do not look like an atavism, as many predicted, but are key instruments and players in global politics and economy. A re-nationalization of international relations has begun, with the rise of new Asia as a major contributing factor, because it is the rise of a continent of nation-states.
In addition, the old bodies of supranational governance are becoming increasingly weaker. Gone are the dreams of a world government and predictions of an impending omnipotence of transnational corporations or supranational non-governmental organizations.
Even a new “Concert of Nations” has not become a reality – a directory of the most powerful countries, similar to the one that existed in Europe in the 19th century, which some reactionary romantics, including myself, urged to establish.
States have become much less powerful than before and have to act in different conditions. Yet they still largely act in the old way. And in this new “old” world, Russia’s old-fashioned politics is much more effective than one might expect, considering its capabilities or its resource base.
Finally, Russia is lucky in the most important thing. Throughout its history, it has defended itself from external threats. These threats were actually the main driving force behind the country’s formation. And now, for the first time in history, Russia has no external enemies that would threaten its existence. In relations with the United States, there are no significant differences but there is nuclear parity.
The coming of Barack Obama to power has made attempts to portray America as a threat a mission impossible. It has delivered a terrible blow to Russian searchers for external threats, like the one delivered by Mikhail Gorbachev to American searchers. In those years, the late Academician Georgy Arbatov told them roughly the following: “We have done the most horrible thing to you – we have deprived you of your enemy.”
But even if a more reactionary president comes to power in the U.S., the threat will not re-emerge. The absence of basic differences and the parity will still remain – except that professional Americanophobes will find life a bit easier for some time.
Europe is not a threat, and Russia has established almost friendly relations with the majority of major European countries. And certainly there are no differences between Russia and them that could become a source of threat.
China diligently tries not to threaten Russia and will unlikely want to threaten it. There are, of course, threats in the South, but they cannot compare with the threats that shaped Russian history and Russia itself.
But this luck has a downside as well. Without external threats and with money falling like manna from the sky, the Russian ruling class and part of the population have relaxed to the point of self-forgetfulness and the oblivion of their interests and the country’s future.
Russia had no luck throughout the 20th century – in many ways, through its own fault. The Russian people committed a revolution, after which they tolerated and supported an anti-human regime, which systematically destroyed millions of the best men and women and which involved the country into a systemic confrontation with the majority of advanced and rich nations in the world.
The 20th century exhausted the people. The country partially disintegrated. But at the turn of the 21st century, Russia, albeit reduced in size, met with luck.
Hopefully, the luck will not fail this country before society and its ruling class wake up and start conducting a sensible policy to revive the nation and the country. For the time being, the Russian expression “fools have all the luck” proves to be correct. But we, Russians, know perfectly well that we are not always lucky. Last century, we had no luck.