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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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