Monday, August 11, 2008

Russia & Georgia (Will They Ever Hook Up?)

You asked, I felt like I should answer about Russia.

Also I'm going to preemptively head off any complaints about being eggheaded by saying you asked for this.

There are only two problems facing Russia, and they're Putin and indifference.

Let me tell you about the indifference. Right now, Russia is going through one of its biggest economic expansions ever. If not the biggest. (You don't even have to include the boost organized crime contributes to the economy, especially the pirating of western media.) And God help you if you don't report that condition favorably.

Since Putin took power, about 20 journalists have been killed in Russia. While that's not quite Columbia-level numbers, that's astronomical for a western European country. There's just no excuse for it. But a common thread running through the deaths and the spontaneous raids of radio and TV stations is that these people were following the money. The Putin regime has never really seemed to care if you report on their human rights abuses or their lack of transparency or the really boundless executive power. Once you get into the kleptocracy stuff — once you ask, "How many billions does Putin have in Swiss bank accounts due to just seizing energy companies?" — that's when you're going to get disappeared.

Because ultimately I don't think a lot of Russian citizens care too terribly much about a lack of transparency at the top. When America was doing all right economically, you probably couldn't find even 5 people in 10 who really gave much of a damn about unchecked executive power. Iraq or Katrina or tax cuts for the wealthy... sure, they might have cared about that. But the principle of balanced power and oversight of the executive is too abstract to care about.

Putin's a smart guy. It's the economy, stupid. He's kept people better off than they were under communism and under the panics of early democracy, and for that they repay him by not caring enough to ask the hard questions. "Who cares if he's a strongman? We have iPods."

It's also partially what happens, I think, when a people have almost zero experience with democracy and whose moments of freedom almost always couple with economic panics or social dislocation. Russian democracy was a messy business, and it hurt an awful lot of people because there were no built-in safety nets anymore. In the rush to tear down communism, they tore down the stuff that bailed out people in tough times, and the only people who knew how to build those safety nets only knew how to do it with a communist instruction manual.

So because freedom was so scary and uncertain, a lot of people treated it as "the time you steal everything not nailed down because you never knew when the next crisis would come and it would all disappear." But since that kind of cowboy capitalism creates crises and destabilizes the economy and social order, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want to get out of a crummy system, so you choose freedom; but freedom creates chaos and another kind of crummy system. So at some point you throw up your hands and say, "WE NEED ONE MAN TO SOLVE THIS, BECAUSE DEMOCRACY DOESN'T WORK!"

I think that's sort of what's happened in Russia. Historically they've always kind of see-sawed between flirting with more liberalism and then trusting in an iron-fisted figure to solve the problems facing them. To a certain extent, I think they looked at Putin and said, "You. Fix this." He did, and in response they turn a blind eye to many things.

One of those things is the sudden aggression toward neighbors. Georgia today. Ukraine and Belarus recently. To a certain extent, there are probably a lot of Russian citizens who enjoy this. After being down and out for the late 1980s and 1990s, it feels good to kick ass and be the big kid on the block again. (You know America loved Gulf War I for the same reasons: Vietnam was such a bummer. But now — we rule again!) But for the most part, this seems like Putin's thing.

You can take the KGB away from a man, but put him in charge of the country, and he'll just recreate it with a new name. Which he has. Putin's an unregenerate Chekist, and he's rebuilt the same spooky secret state apparatus he used to be a part of. And with that comes the aggression, because otherwise what's the point?

As to what that aggression means, I don't think it's part of a plan for global domination. As my namesake George Kennan pointed out in his famous Long Telegram, Soviet expansion post-WWII was really just a realization of all the 19th century land grabs the Russian Tsars pursued. It was this paranoid reach for security in the guise of a century-long national dream.

I don't think this aggression is as grand, but I think it indicates Putin and his band of Chekists are going back to the recent past. They want those satellite states that the USSR had. They want their old Socialist Republics back — Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus. They want to have the glory of the old Soviet dream back. Just without the communism and with the billions and billions of nakedly stolen petrochemical dollars and hijacking of private industries.

It's funny that we picked the name that we did for this place, because at the time, it couldn't have been more of a winking joke. The world wasn't really like that anymore. Now it seems prescient. The movement toward opacity, mendacity, ornate deceptions, arms increases, elective wars and wars-by-proxy — the sort of stuff we lived through in the Cold War — were all sort of coming back after 2001. But to take it seriously enough to call looking at it "Kremlinology" would have sounded like pretentious self-indulgence. Yet in just the last year, all those tendencies have ramped up to an absurd degree. It's not funny anymore. It's not even remotely funny.

And, at least in Russia's case, it looks like Putin and his joke of a picked successor will get away with it. In part because most of the people are too indifferent to really ask what's going on and challenge the responses they get. And in part because when people do do that, more of their bodies are dropping on St. Petersburg streets than Marlo Stanfield dropped on West Baltimore.


L-Scott said...

I agreed with a lot of your post, and it's another good'n, so good onya. :)

On the other hand, I can't shake the feeling that it sounds like you're blaming the Russian people or feel some negativity there. I'm as wary and critical of Putin's pretty much total control of the country, but I can't put that on anyone. I get your point that people who are going through a lot of good times won't look around and ask what's wrong. But that's not really a charge I feel good leveling at this point in history. The middle class in this country was bought off with a few hundred dollars per year in tax cuts and just watched a few trillion in debt get shipped out to China so a president could gather ENORMOUS executive power.

Getting on the Russians' case for doing something similar would be like punching myself in the face.

George F.K. said...

I think you're being a little hard on me. (Huh, huh-huh, huh-huh-huh-huh. I said "hard on.") The reason that attitude is coming through isn't because I mean it but because I'm being a little lazy writing these things. I should choose my words better.

You're right: the people really aren't to blame, and if anyone's going to blame them, it sure as hell can't be us. Any population under any government in any country is susceptible to being distracted by Bread and Circuses. It's just a fact of life that if people enjoy prosperity and are entertained — even if that entertainment is a national one, like a war — they're less apt to ask questions. I know when I was a kid and later a teenager, I didn't say, "Hey, how come I have it so good, in such a nice house, with nice stuff?" Most people are like that about their governments. We question when something's not there, not when it is. I can't and don't fault either the Russian or the Chinese peoples. Right now they're enjoying some of the highest quality of life, across all demographics, that their societies have ever seen.

But after a while, I think blame will migrate there. The questioning will start somewhere. Someone — maybe a radio DJ, maybe an academic, maybe a charismatic sports star — someone is going to ask why the country is becoming increasingly bellicose, why the government is getting more opaque and why dissent seems to be disappearing. When (not if) that happens, I think my blame will start migrating to the people if they're not starting to wonder about those things themselves. A totally incurious society is a terminal society. For their own sakes, they (as we lately started to) have to ask questions about the air at the top. What's going on there? Who answers to whom? Does anyone have to answer to anyone else at all anymore?