Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Isn’t Restoring the USSR; He’s Seeking Support from Conservative Part of the Population, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 17 – Several recent actions by the Kremlin restoring Soviet-era symbols have led to speculation that Vladimir Putin is returning Russia to the political-economic model of the USSR, but such speculation distracts attention from what the Russian president is really trying to do: generate support for himself among the most conservative part of the population.

            Indeed, Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist and frequent commentator on Russian politics, says in an interview posted on the site today, Putin is casting about for support in a variety of directions because of “the sharp need of the authorities” for ideological justification and support (

                Once one recognizes this, Gontmakher tells’s Yevgeny Yershov, it becomes obvious that Russia and Russians are “ever closer not to the USSR but to ‘the End of History,” the kind of cataclysmic events that the country passed through twice in the last century, at the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the collapse of communism in 1991.

                Putin is employing various “attributes” and “decorations” from Soviet times, ranging from the restoration of the Hero of Labor and the return of political prisoners. And the ban on foreign property now applied to officials may be extended to larger groups of the population, but “all these are purely external signs which do not have any real relationship to Soviet reality.”

            The Russian president, Gontmakher continues, is “maneuvering” because what he needs now is “not the love of the population” which he had enjoyed in the past but “stable support from the side of the citizens,” something he appears to fear he can no longer count on as a given.  So he is trying various messages, including some that recall “traditional values” and the Soviet past.

            But neither he nor the population want a return to Soviet times when “the authorities were far more severe than now and when the power vertical” including the KGB had vastly more powers.  At that time, if a party leader said something, it was implemented more or less well. Now, if Putin does, it is debated and often ignored.

            That is because, Gontmakher stressed, “now there is no power vertical” in the Russian Federation.

            The current Russian president is “a pragmatist,” the Moscow commentator says, and “his goal is to preserve power,” a far from easy task given the difficulties that the country finds itself in. He will “play” with Soviet symbols, but that does not constitute a program for the restoration of a system that in principle cannot be restored.

            The economic situation in Russia is “getting visibly worse,” the economist continues, with increasing gaps in the budget, economic growth at a standstill, and inflation much higher than it was a year ago.   In this situation, it is no surprise that Putin is “disappointed in the Western model.”

            But and this is the important point, regardless of his disappointment, he “apparently does not see any other model,” Gontmakher says.  “Remember Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’?” he asks rhetorically.  That book has been much criticized in the West and Fukuyama has spent recent years explaining that “everything is not as simple” as many took his projection to be.

            With regard to Russia, however, “‘the end of history’ which took place in 1991 is the truth,” Gontmakher argues.  Perhaps some third world country could choose some other course, but “Russia does not have any other variants! After the collapse of the ‘communist’ model we have no choice” but to follow in that direction.

            It is “possible,” of course, that Putin “does not [completely] understand that the global historical process contradicts” everything that the Soviet system offered.  Consider just one example, Gontmakher says, the notion of how “the Eurasian space” should be arranged politically.

            The Russian president wants to integrate the countries of the former Soviet space into a common economic space, and that has sparked concerns that “the USSR is returning.”  But nothing could be further from the truth.  “How would it be possible to drive ito one country Kaakhstan, Belarus and Russia?”

            “Neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbayev nor their successor are going to concede their sovereignty. Never!”  And the same logic applies to the arguments of those who see the customs union as leading to the rebirth of the USSR. It simply isn’t going to happen, Gontmakher insists. “In the best case,” it will be just one more regional economic cooperation organization.

            The current Russian political situation “is not leading [Russia] back to the Soviets.”  Theirs was “a still-born model,” and no one is really thinking about following it however many external attributes may be used to generate political support in an entirely different economic and political environment.

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