The EU and Russia: Moscow’s broken mirror

18 August 2014 – El País (Madrid)

Europeans thought that Russia would turn itself into a liberal democracy and get closer to the EU. But his re-election in 2012, Vladimir Putin has blocked the modernisation of his country, as shown by the crisis in Ukraine.

Over the last decade, democratic Europe built an image of Russia as a country in the midst of an intense but irreversible process of political, economic and social modernisation. It was thought that economic development, as elsewhere in post-Cold War Europe, would lead to the emergence of a middle class in which individuals would flourish in an environment of shared freedom, rights and prosperity. Many also dreamed, if not of Russia joining the European Union, of a framework of relations so close that they would have amounted an “everything but the institutions” partnership.

This Russian mirror was broken in 2009, when Vladimir Putin, who just completed two mandates at the head of the country, announced his intention to seek the presidency again in 2012. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who had previously hailed Putin as a moderniser, publicly expressed his concern for the turn Russian politics was taking and called on Putin to reconsider his decision.

Barely five years later, we see the extent to which Gorbachev was right. Since his re-election in 2012, Putin has carefully and meticulously put this mirror in place and blocked any prospect of modernising the country.

Extractive elite

Instead of opening the economy to the world and seeking to create an independent entrepreneurial class, he has opted to concentrate political, economic and media power into the hands of a small elite of friends, oligarchs and former KGB comrades

Instead of opening the economy to the world and seeking to create an independent entrepreneurial class, he has opted to concentrate political, economic and media power into the hands of a small elite of friends, oligarchs and former KGB comrades. It’s possible to speak of an “extractive elite” blocking the country’s economic and political progress for reasons less and less ideological and more and more personal: with the current economic structures, this elite is well aware that modernisation would leave it without power.

Through an unprecedented concentration of economic and media power, the Putin regime achieved a feat unequalled in the annals of authoritarianism: to obtain democratic and popular legitimacy (because Putin is very popular) through an extractive oligarchy that owes its very existence to strong political authoritarianism, extreme social inequality and incredible concentration of wealth.

Little by little, Russia has become a petro-state, a public entity that does not only base its power on raw materials, but also uses this base to ignore society’s demands for political, economic and social modernisation. This so-called “resource curse” has created a strange hybrid Russia, something halfway between a pseudo-Venezuela, where oil and gas revenues are used to build the social support base the regime needs to maintain a democratic façade, and an oil monarchy whose legitimacy is based in a rancid nationalism that nourishes itself on religion, culture and warmongering historical myths.

Tsarism and Soviet era

From manipulation of media to harassment of independent civil society groups and social movements (including the LGBT movement), along with strict control of foreign influences and aspirations to both tsarism and its antithesis, the Soviet era, Putin has become obsessed with identity and nation-building.

If Gorbachev can be reproached for one thing, it’s that his foresight did not go far enough. Putin has not limited himself to managing Russia’s stagnation in a direct and irksome manner reminiscent of Brezhnev. He has gone to great lengths to build an irredentist and revisionist Russia, resulting in a huge security problem on Europe’s doorstep. By treating his neighbours like peons, obliged to participate in the creation of a sphere of influence that assures an independent Russia distinct from the West, Putin has linked his destiny to that of Ukraine, because he cannot allow himself to lose the central component of his Eurasian project.

As such, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place: if he proceeds, he will enter into economic confrontation with the West, which will weaken his petro-state, impoverish the oligarchs and irritate public opinion. If he backs down, he will have to abandon his acolytes in eastern Ukraine and face criticism of selling Russia’s soul and identity in exchange for a bit of paltry money.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear is that a leader who has built his political career on the desire to avenge the humiliations Russia has suffered will not tolerate ending in humiliation himself.

Translated from the Spanish by Luca Pauti

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