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Russia alla Puttanesca

Where does Russia find itself in the world of today? What’s the real balance sheet of the Putin era to date?

March 2, 2012

Where does Russia find itself in the world of today? What's the real balance sheet of the Putin era to date?

The message seems to be the same worldwide, from India to the Middle East. The world’s middle classes are no longer acquiescent. They resent, in particular, being cynically (ab)used as a pawn by potentates who only talk a good game and, in reality, keep most of the gains for themselves and their ilk.

Fortunately, despite the Putin team’s best efforts to control Russia’s television screens, his success in manufacturing Russians’ acquiescence turns out to be a felicitous failure. First, the Internet became a conduit for the opposition. Then, remarkably, the bad feelings sprung into real life, onto the streets. Thirty years after the Poles showed them how, the Russians are becoming restive.

As a result, longstanding Western thinking about Russia, especially the deeply rooted belief in the serf-like nature of many of its people, is starting to change. Tolstoy’s presumption that the Russian people lack a natural democratic impulse may well be in the process of being proved outdated. Rising income levels do have their way of changing people’s mindsets, courage and expectations.

And so it is that middle-class Russians, especially in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the few other big cities in this sparsely populated country, have begun to wonder whether they really want to be among the last un-liberated major cultures of the globe. At this juncture, it seems to be a race between Iran, Syria and Russia as to who will live in the political equivalent of the 19th century the longest.

Like the mullahs of Iran (who also have a track record of manufacturing election outcomes), Mr. Putin has tried to whip up sympathy for himself by saber-rattling about insidious foreigners trying to undermine his great vision for Russia — or, funnier yet, take him out physically. Young urban Russians — on whom it is dawning that Mr. Putin, once he has served another two presidential terms, is on track to rule Russia longer than Stalin did — do not seem inclined to fall for those ploys.

Gone is the excitement and the hope that a disciplined taskmaster would deliver what he promised — a better future for Russia. His earlier pronouncements about economic modernization, and especially an industrial revitalization strategy based on expanding the country’s innovative capacity, has fallen flat. He is offering handouts dependent on oil market prices, not a national strategy.

Most of what Russia manages to get done on its own (after the exodus of Jewish scientists, often into Israel), is to rely on import-substitution strategies, whether in the automotive or pharmaceutical sectors. All that proud Mr. Putin’s Russia shows is the low-skill level of a workforce “excelling” in the assembly of foreign-made inputs than home-grown high-tech ingenuity. That, alas, makes the Russians, with few exceptions, industrial serfs.

And why should it be any different? What Mr. Putin has achieved, with feeble Mr. Medvedev acting out his role as an innocent bystander, is to turn Russia into one gigantic, colder form of the Italian South.

It is pretty much a case of Russia alla puttanesca (spaghetti alla puttanesca, literally “whore’s style spaghetti” in Italian, is a spicy, salty pasta dish). Almost all business activity is rigged. His only “business innovation” is using the “legal” system to dispossess people of their assets, rather than simply murdering them outright, as is the Mafia’s preferred mode of operation in Italy.

No wonder that ordinary Russians, whether they grew up under the nomenklatura system, or merely heard about it, feel disoriented. Under the Communists, that mechanism was at least a society-wide scheme of “qualification” via the political track. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, the nomenklatura has been replaced by an Italian-style camorra.

The unifying element of this “mafia” is based on a shared professional background: past service in the intelligence and state security services. Given that, the circle of those who could advance was astonishingly drawn much wider under the Communists, with their nomenklatura-style recruiting mechanism. And this is true even for the oligarchs under Yeltsin who, while smallish in number, at least came from diverse backgrounds, regions and professions.

Therefore, the only dimension in which Putin has delivered as promised is in reestablishing the pride, and sense of control, of all his fellow spies and intelligence operatives, working in the domestic and foreign fields. They became rich, and — unlike with the oligarchs with their leanings toward ostentation — every ounce of their wealth is hidden.

That is not much to show for well over a decade in power. Putin’s is the most narrow-minded form of clientelism, on par with what Libya’s Gadhafi executed after his 1969 rebellion on behalf of his tribe and clique.

By comparison, little has trickled down to the Russians farther afield. And if it weren’t for the high oil price propping up his regime, Putin would be in far more dire straits. At $100-120 a barrel, he can spread some of those goodies around.

However, Russians’ per capita income isn’t so impressive at all. If one excludes the share of income that is entirely due to oil and gas, which has little to do with Russians’ ingenuity or productivity, their per capita income would certainly be far lower. Indeed, one wonders how far it will be from China’s, excluding the oil factor, in, say, 20 years.

Nothing captured the current state of affairs, however unintentionally, better than the photos of Putin and Medvedev fishing together on the Volga last summer. With the benefit of hindsight, they ring more symbolically true than ever in the eyes of more and more Russians.

Contrary to intentions of Putin’s image crafters, they are not a heartwarming depiction of the country’s two leaders bonding in the Russian countryside. Rather, it has begun to dawn on a growing segment of the Russian people that the “fish” the leaders display so proudly on their hooks are nothing other than symbols of the Russian people themselves.

For a law-and-order man, as Putin tries to cast himself so ardently, he should ask himself two penetrating questions: Why is it that one gets accosted for bribes by policemen a few steps outside hotels in central Moscow? That makes it plain to every foreigner at least that the Putin system’s level of unashamed corruptibility reaches very deep, for all the world to see in plain sight. Next time, let’s post the interaction(s) on YouTube.


Middle-class Russians are beginning to wonder whether they want to be among the last un-liberated major cultures of the globe.

Russians' per capita income isn't so impressive at all, if one excludes the income share that is entirely due to oil.

Putin's is the most narrow-minded form of clientelism, on par with what Libya's Gadhafi executed after his rebellion on behalf of his tribe.