Niall Ferguson: Russia’s Worrying Backlash

Historian Niall Ferguson, author of the excellent books “Empire,” “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire,” and most recently “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West,” has long made a career out of analyzing the collapse of regimes – and today in the Sunday Telegraph, he gives some historical contrast to the Vladimir Putin phenomenon in Russia:

To be sure, Vladimir Putin is no Hitler. A former KGB officer rather than a lowly Bavarian corporal, Putin is as coldly calculating as Hitler was febrile and impulsive. Hitler regarded the German economy as merely the servant of his megalomaniac will. Putin, by contrast, is effectively the chief executive of Russia Inc – the principal shareholder in a system that increasingly resembles what Marxist-Leninist theorists once condemned in the West as “state monopoly capitalism”. Moreover, Putin has advantages the German dictator had to fight for: vast “living space” and, more importantly, abundant oil and gas. Nevertheless, Putin’s regime still looks alarmingly like that backlash against “Weimar on the Volga” that we predicted seven years ago: a backlash against both foreign creditors and domestic profiteers, exploiting a loss of public faith not only in the rule of law but also in free markets, parliamentary institutions and international economic openness. As we anticipated, one of Mr Putin’s earliest moves was to launch a campaign against the “oligarchs” who had been the principal beneficiaries of Boris Yeltsin’s (admittedly crooked) privatisation, securing the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his Yukos oil company. Having frightened the other oligarchs into exile or submission, Mr Putin set about renationalising Russia’s energy resources through the state-controlled giants Gazprom and Rosneft. Foreign investors have also felt the backlash. Having successfully reduced Shell’s stake in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas field, Moscow now seems intent on doing the same to BP, which has a substantial interest in the Kovykta gas field. As before, the tactic is to accuse the foreign company of violating the terms of its licence. All that remains to be decided is how much of its stake in Kovykta BP will have to yield up to Gazprom. … To repeat, there is no such thing as the future; only futures. One conceivable future is that after (if?) Mr Putin steps down next year, Russia will become more liberal in its politics. But that is not the future on which I would put my money. A more plausible future is that, having more or less stifled internal dissent, Russia is now ready to play a more aggressive role on the international stage. Remember: it was Mr Putin who restored the old Soviet national anthem within a year of becoming president of the Russian Federation. And it was he who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “national tragedy on an enormous scale”. It would be a bigger tragedy if he or his successor tried somehow to restore that evil empire. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Weimar analogy predicts will happen next.

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