It's Gogol, Again
Where are the analysts who in the early and mid-1990s warned incessantly of Communist restoration as the gravest danger facing Russia now that the downtrodden Communists remain almost the only organized public counterweight to the Kremlin? Where are the experts who lectured during the fiction of neo-liberal reforms about the need to establish a social safety net now that the Kremlin has, finally, started pulling the net out from under Russian society? Where are the earnest commentators who remonstrated about not imposing Western models on Russia—about the imperative that Russia be allowed to go its own way—now that it is painfully obvious Russia has gone its own way? At a December 2004 press conference, a twice popularly elected President Putin—preening in his sixth consecutive year of robust GDP growth—underscored “the choice made by Russia to follow its own optimal road of development.” But Russia’s state and society are churning. The country appears stuck. The degree to which Putin’s preferences or a political culture and innate problems of governability condition Russia’s outlier status can be debated. But barring a sudden discovery of cost-effective substitutes for fossil fuels, Russia will likely muddle along on its current path buttressed by oil revenues, whoever is its ruler—proudly, stubbornly refusing to kowtow to global trends and exigencies. For the long-term political outlook, the evolution of Russian society will be fundamental. But so far, the property-owning class remains narrow. Despite the economic growth, the number of small and medium businesses has not grown appreciably, and they remain very far from exerting the influence that would help transform the political system fundamentally. For now, hydrocarbons continue to underwrite Russia’s reluctance to adapt. And despite the benefits that international cooperation in energy would bring, Russia may drag its feet on establishing further genuine partnerships until its fossil fuel sector reaches catastrophe.