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writing for godot

Russia in Turmoil, America in Denial

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Sunday, 25 December 2011 06:48
On a day when Americans were busy being merry and preparing for Christmas Eve, tens of thousands of Russians gathered in Moscow on December 24 shouting "We are the Power" and demanding an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule. It was an impressive demonstration of solidarity, one that rivals the protests that rocked the Kremlin to its foundations 20 years ago.

That one, recall, brought the mighty Soviet "superpower" crashing to the ground. Of the two opposing models in the Manichean world of the Cold War – communism and capitalism – one was suddenly dead and gone.

The collapse of Soviet power proved that central planning didn't work. And the West rejoiced. Now, two decades later, capitalism is in crisis. Is it possible that deregulated capitalism – the love child of the Reagan Revolution – doesn't work either?

In the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, Russia's economy went from bad to worse. Privatization was simply another word for state-sponsored corruption and thievery. Under Putin, the economy improved thanks to a steep rise in world market prices for oil and natural gas, Russia's most abundant natural resource and its main export.

Russia's oil bonanza has not produced prosperity, and GDP growth has not produced development. At present, Russia's economy is about one-fifth the size of the EU-27 or the US, smaller by far than China's, smaller than Japan's, Germany's or India's, and comparable to that of the UK or Brazil. In GDP per capita, Russia ranks about 57th in the world, just above Turkey and below Croatia, Uruguay, and Chile. Moreover, income distribution in Russia is extremely unequal.

Putin's failure to rebuild Russia's industry and infrastructure, official corruption, and growing despair at the lack of opportunity to get ahead is at the root of the current discontent. Most Russians don't really believe in democracy because it's never worked there – but the discontent behind the demand for free and fair elections is very real and clearly on the rise.

The Putin opposition includes such household names in the West as Mikhail Gorbachev and Garry Kasparov. The octogenarian Gorbachev declared on Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo) radio that the massive protest, "raises big hopes." Kasparov, speaking to a mostly young crowd, said "There are so many of us here, and they (the government) are few. They are huddled up in fear behind police cordons."

Other prominent opposition figures who spoke from the stage included Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption lawyer and popular blogger, and Boris Nemtsov, a one-time Deputy Prime Minister turned outspoken Putin critic. "We have enough people here to take the Kremlin," Navalny shouted to the crowd. "But we are peaceful people and we won't do that — yet. But if these crooks and thieves keep cheating us, we will take what is ours."

But the protesters lack a leader capable of challenging Putin in the March 2012 presidential election. Even the demonstrators themselves are not united. In Saturday's rally, some speakers were jeered.

According to The Guardian, a British newspaper, the crowd "was largely young and middle class, [but] Saturday's protest also gathered many pensioners and first-time protesters, indicating that anti-government sentiment was growing." The opposition is made up of odd bedfellows – liberals and nationalists – who have one main thing in common: a desire to see a "Russia without Putin."

Putin's United Russia party lost 25 percent of its seats in the recent parliamentary election, but kept control thanks to widespread fraud. United Russia, the party of a corrupt bureaucracy in the popular mind, is known as the party of crooks and thieves, a phrase coined by Navalny. "We don't trust him [Putin]," Nemtsov told the rally, adding, "A thief must not sit in the Kremlin."

What does it all mean for Russia? If History is any guide, it would be a big mistake to dismiss even the most dire possibilities. After all, Russia has been the scene of two of the greatest tumults in the past century: the October Revolution and the curiously nameless revolution that swept the might Soviet empire into the dustbin of history in 1991.

But Russia is a land of contradictions. Another thing History teaches us is the more things change in Russia, the more they stay the same. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that roughly half the people of Russia believe the country was better off under Soviet rule. Less than a third say things are better today. Similarly, most Russians have little faith in democracy, and given a choice continue to admire – and indeed prefer – a strong leader.

The repressive Tsarist autocracy that collapsed in World War I was replaced by an even more repressive Stalinist tyranny. The softening Stalinist system under Gorbachev was eventually replaced by Putin's personality-cult brand of pluralistic authoritarianism. Perhaps Putin will be forced to bow out or step down. If so, will it be different this time?

There's a lesson for America here, too. What appears to be happening in Russia is perhaps not that different from what happened in Egypt earlier this year. Look where that has taken the Egyptians: now the military is running the show and cracking heads. In other words, the only thing that has changed is that Mubarak is not giving the orders.

If anything is every going to change in Russia or Egypt, the citizenry will, at a minimum, have to a) keep paying attention long after the next protest or election has ended, b) keep the goal of a decent, fair, and open society uppermost; c) put ideology aside; and d) get involved because no unpopular government can long endure unless the public is docile, fearful, or apathetic. Any one of these conditions is enough to keep the thin layer who constitute the privileged power elite in luxury while the vast majority languish.

But let's be clear: the lessons of History do not apply only to Russia and Egypt, or to specific countries at specific times. They apply universally. No nation is exempt, no matter how rich or how powerful. Not even the United States of America, where greed-is-good capitalism remains the ideological credo of the ruling elite.

Note: Please visit my Open Salon blog, my website at, and my Facebook page, where I regularly post links to articles that explore what has to happen in the US to reform Wall Street and end the paralysis and corruption in Washington. your social media marketing partner


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+1 # Maianewley 2011-12-27 06:07
Never forget that Putin used to head up the FSB! Old leopards don't change their spots that easily, even when they like to promote adverts of themselves fighting with wild animals!

I remember a very good and old friend of mine, who used to be sent into regions of the world where conflict resolution (ie my work!) had failed in order to try to find a way of compromise (Dayton Accords, that type of thing) saying "the problem with all these things is that we take our eye off the ball. They're all powder kegs waiting to explode but we only ever pay attention once someone's lit the fuse. We pay attention for about two weeks and then forget all about it, moving on to the next crisis" (or something along those lines!) and he was right. The soft military coup in Egypt was predictable and not destined to turn out the way it has (in my opinion). Not destined but not surprizing either.

Democracy means different things to different people. I used to say this a lot when working in the Mid East, ask an Israeli what it means, ask a Palestinian, ask an American, and they'll probably all have different definitions.

Russia worries me. It's worried me for years and continues to do so. But what possibly worries me more, is the complacency in certain parts of the world that such things could never happen 'here'. As you rightly identified, they can and do... and are!

Great article.
+1 # DakotaKid 2011-12-27 12:48
Thanks for the comment, Maia. The false idea of American exceptionalism no doubt helps to explain, but not excuse, our inability to apply the lessons of other countries and cultures to our own society. We think of American "democracy" as a model to be emulated by the rest of the world, but we don't think others have anything to teach us. Think of health insurance, the absence of modern mass transit in most US cities, and the ineffable and unfair federal tax code in this country, to cite a few examples of public policy gone off the rails. Europe has its own problems, of course, but America is the only rich country where the only thing standing between solvency and bankruptcy for millions of families is a single serious illness.
0 # RMDC 2012-01-08 09:45
I don't know why Russia worries you. I assume you are an American. Why do Americans always worry and then intervene in other nations' business. The Dayton Accords is a perfect example. Why was the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Bosnia mandated in Dayton, Ohio. Why was a NATO generated war in the Balkans controlled from Dayton. What's in Dayton that makes it the capital of the Balkans? I'd say that Ohioans should tend to their own problems and leave Eastern Europe alone.

As you say, democracy means different things to different people. Leave Russia with its meaning for democracy. Worry about American democracy. Things are looking pretty bad in America -- the economy collapsing, unemployment growing, wars on 4 continents and Obama now moving militarily into Asia-Pacific. Russia is doing quite well by comparison. Maybe there should be a Dayton Accord to end the US Global War on Terror which is really a war on the whole globe. Those Ohioans must know something. They broke up Yugoslavia; maybe they can break up the US and fix our problem.
0 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-01-02 15:49
We hear a lot about the Israeli lobby. RT (Russia TV) is the only source of progressive news here and aboard for most Americans, besides Democracy Now.

They seem very alert and wouldn't let me post,even though I hadn't yet ever said anything critical about the Russian lobby. Maybe its hopeless Americans are being pulled in many different ways from lobbyists all over the world.
-1 # RMDC 2012-01-07 09:36
I don't really agree with most of this. If you look at video of the protests in Russia, you'll see mostly communist party banners. The communist party gained the most in the recent elections. Their complaint is that Putin is not moving fast enough in re-nationalizin g most of Russia's industry that was stolen by an both domestic and foreign criminals under the traitor Yeltsin.

Right now Russia is among the fastest growing economies the world. It is part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) which is where all the economic growth is taking place. Russia's problem now it to re-nationalize its economy, throw the foreign owners out and stop the exportation of profits.

The other factor in the demonstrations is the CIA. You see Google banners in the crowds. Google is a CIA front in the recent political unrest around the world. The fascists in the US -- CIA to the Koch Brothers -- have figured out how to mobilize masses very effectively. They did it with the Teaparty here and the Arab Spring in the middle east. They are working very hard in Russia now. This is just a upgrade of the color revolutions that where instigated by US NGOs in the 90s and 00s. So, you have to discount from the Russian protests the US driven astro-turfing. Nations that went through the Arab Spring will have worse governments when the dust settles. This won't happen in Russia. What is happening is the return of communism and that is a very good thing.

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