Putin Leaves Behind an Unaccountable and Unpredictable regime

Dr. Fraser Cameron of the EU-Russia Centre has a new opinion article in European Voice which takes a critical look at the legacy of Putinism, focusing especially on the tragic failure of the administration to take advantage of record high energy prices to diversify the economy, build infrastructure, and address outstanding health and demographic issues. Instead, Dr. Cameron argues, this oil- and gas-fed influence was used to consolidate power, weaken institutions, and engage in an unnecessarily confrontational foreign policy. See the full article after the jump. frasercameron022808.jpg Dr. Fraser Cameron of the EU-Russia Centre (left) with Russian human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeyeva – who has appeared in several video interviews on this blog.

Putin leaves troubled legacyBy Fraser CameronNext Sunday (2 March) Russia elects a new president. There will be no suspense, no surprises. Ever since Vladimir Putin hand-picked his deputy prime minister, Dimitri Medvedev, as his successor, there was only going to be one outcome.Medvedev does not formally take over until 9 May and very little is known about him or how he will govern. He will also have to contend with Putin as his prime minister and there is much speculation as to how this new relationship will work in practice.Although Putin is not disappearing from the scene, it is still worth examining his record over the past eight years. The official Kremlin line voiced by ministers and friendly political analysts suggests he restored stability and brought about a steady increase in prosperity. But what are the facts?When Putin took office the oil price was $40 a barrel. Today it is hovering around $100 a barrel. In 1999 Russia’s oil and gas exports amounted to $76 billion; in 2007 this rose to $350bn. No president could have been luckier than Putin, occupying the Kremlin during this energy bonanza. But what did he do with this new wealth? There has been almost no attempt to diversify the economy – even though proclaimed as a top priority by Putin himself – or to deal with the huge social problems facing Russia. These include a crumbling healthcare system, widespread alcoholism and HIV/Aids, a growing rich-poor divide, a lack of infrastructure and an outdated military. The demography statistics are also worrying. Russians are literally dying out. As Putin himself has admitted, Russia suffers from low productivity, poor energy efficiency and widespread corruption. But all these problems worsened during his watch.The Russian economy expanded by 69% during Putin’s period in office but many ex-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, grew even faster. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the small Baltic country of Lithuania, for example, with a population just over three million and with no mineral resources, grew 10.3% in 2007. Recent years have also seen a reversal to state control of several sectors of the Russian economy. It is difficult to see how such moves can help increase productivity. As Putin himself stated: “The state system is weighed down by bureaucracy and corruption and does not have the motivation for positive change, much less dynamic development.” But this is inevitable when so much power is concentrated in one person’s hands. By destroying independent organisations there are no checks and balances. In nearly all international assessments of transparency and governance, Russia comes out poorly. If one judges a state by its ability to serve the people and protect them from the powerful, including itself, then Russia is ineffective. Putin may have increased the power of the Kremlin but he has not helped create a modern responsive state apparatus.The political scene is far less open and democratic than it was in the 1990s. There has been a steady onslaught on the media and civil liberties. Corruption flourishes and the rule of law exists only on paper. These flaws have been recognised by both Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, another deputy prime minister and his erstwhile rival for the Kremlin. But they have both been closely associated with Putin’s policies and it is not clear how they can reverse course, even if they wanted to.In foreign policy Putin has stressed that Russia must again be taken seriously. But his tactics to try to achieve influence have more to do with Cold War pressure than with new age soft power. It is telling that there is no Russian translation for “charm offensive”. Putin made no secret of his regrets about the collapse of the Soviet empire and his resentment at the subsequent enlargement of the EU and NATO. He seems unable to understand why those countries previously occupied by or under the control of Moscow should see their future in the Euro-Atlantic community. It is remarkable that Russia has succeeded in antagonizing almost all of its neighbours through its bullying tactics.It is difficult to assess Putin’s eight years in office as anything other than a missed opportunity to transform Russia in a positive direction. By seeing enemies everywhere, by insisting on extending state control, he has created an unaccountable and unpredictable regime. There are no shared values such as democracy and the rule of law. True, many Russians appreciate the ascetic, judo-practising, teetotaller in the Kremlin. Polls reveal strong support for a Czarist figure combining executive and legislative functions. These are worrying trends, but one should also have a sense of perspective. Russia today is freer than at any time in its history apart from the 1990s. It is just a pity that Vladimir Putin could not have maintained these freedoms and done more to secure the long-term development of the economy. History is unlikely to be kind to him.