Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Culture: Blaming Freedom

You might not know it, but economic freedom is to blame for Russia's recent turn toward authoritarianism, at least according to Lilia Shevtsova, cochair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Project at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center. Shevtsova writes the following in a book review of Periferiiny Kapitalizm (Peripheral Capitalism) by Grigory Yavlinsky:

In Russia, the pro-market economic determinism of the 1990s created the illusion that capitalism’s benefits would eventually produce a country of staunch democrats. Instead, Russia’s experience proved that economic growth can trigger nationalist nostalgia for a long-past superpower role. Derailed en route to democracy, Russia now sits idle in a way station where strength mingles with impotence, powerful bureaucracies constrain authoritarian leadership, and thriving private businesses uneasily coexist with state-run enterprises. [FOREIGN POLICY]
I have a more plausible explanation for Russia’s current position: Russia left communism, but it never truly left authoritarianism. The fall of communism in Russia did not mean the embrace of the principle of individual rights. After the communism’s collapse, the Russian mafia first filled the power vacuum. Now Putin is. Through all this, one thing remains constant: in Russia, might always makes right.

How then does Shevtsova come to blame “pro-market economic determinism” for Russia’s problems? Easily. While seemingly advocating for capitalism, she nevertheless equates the power of the businessman with the power of the gun.

[M]ost transitional societies are hybrids of some kind. (Just look at China.) But precisely what kind of hybrid is Russia? What path does President Vladimir Putin envision for the country in his second term? Will he find the courage to undo the bonds between power and business, between those who make the decisions and those who influence them? And what fate awaits Russia if he does not?
Who are these businessmen with their fingers on power in Russia? Isn’t it the other way around? Shevtsova gives us a hint:

Unlike its Soviet predecessor, the Russian economy is tied to world markets, but in Yavlinsky’s view it survives only on the most distant margins of the global economy. Despite Putin’s first-term pledge to dismantle the oligarchic economic system, entire swaths of the Russian economy remain monopolized by tycoons, many with insider ties to powerful bureaucrats who dominate sectors such as agriculture, defense, oil, and natural gas. Little has changed since the Stalinist era, Yavlinsky observes. Instead of planning the economy, the government now manages business.
So the Russian state grants monopoly power to some businessmen. That’s not capitalism. Shevtsova admits as much, but again, given what she wrote in her opening paragraph, she still ends up blaming the victim:

Russian society is suffering from chronic reform fatigue after enduring countless initiatives that produced many losers and just a handful of winners. Among Russians, stability and order are the preferred options, suggesting the possibility of yet another reformist experiment in Russia—this time, with harsh authoritarianism. Without institutional reforms, Russia is destined to remain on the periphery, growing more disenchanted and hostile toward the West.
But are Russia’s “many losers” the product of a culture of laziness, or are they held back by their government? Is hard work seen as the path to wealth? Do the Russians believe money can be made if they are left free to make it? Do the Russians accept the principle of individual rights? These questions go unasked.

Yet one fact is certain: if Russia favors the boot over freedom, it is unfair to blame freedom.

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