Friday, June 22, 2007

Leon Aron book review

Europe.view

An experiment in democracy
Jun 21st 2007
From Economist.com


Finally, a book with real insight into Russia


A LOT of nonsense is said about Russia, and particularly about the West’s relationship with it. Among the fatuous questions is “Who lost Russia?” (as if a careless Western politician could lose it as easily as a set of keys). Equally fatuous is the idea that the answer is to “Forget Russia” (as if the largest country in the world were a poorly chosen girlfriend).

Leon Aron is an émigré whose sharp understanding of his homeland is matched by an appreciation of the mistakes that outsiders, particularly his fellow Americans, make in interpreting it. In a new book, “Russia’s Revolution”, he compares Russia’s first sustained experiment in democracy and modern capitalism to “the movement of a long and disorderly caravan on a vast swampy plain: stopping, stumbling…drowning in muck, yet stubbornly creaking forward”. Following closely behind are the Russia-watchers, who ignore the distance travelled, any comparison with other travellers, and the road ahead. “Their eyes seem forever to be on the dirt covering the wheels, the ruts in the road, and the ugly swamp creatures feasting on the piles of refuse in the wagons’ wake.”



That is harsh, but largely fair. The asinine “Who lost Russia?” argument hangs on the misconception that Russia in 1989 (or 1986 or 1996 or whenever) was ripe for reform, and that only the policies and their sequencing were wrong. If only privatisation had preceded price liberalisation, or if savings had been indexed, or if reform could have been more gradual—the wishful thinkers’ list of “what ifs” is as endless as it is vacuous. The truth is that with any conceivable combination of policies, the 1990s in Russia would have been horrible for most Russians, because of the appalling starting point.

Mr Aron, who emigrated in 1978, portrays the utter failure and despair of the late Soviet Union accurately. An admiring biographer of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s president from 1991-99, he reckons the 1990s were mostly a triumph. The planned economy was replaced by a functioning if messy capitalist one; the Communist revanche evaporated; a middle class grew quickly. That compares well with the record of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader from 1985-91, who admirably let the Berlin Wall come down, but also allowed his uniformed thugs to slaughter unarmed demonstrators in Lithuania and Georgia.

Some may find this assessment too Panglossian. But Mr Aron makes some irrefutable points in favour of the changes of the 1990s. “The nation that for ages told itself that it is lazy and unlucky and incapable of getting anything done right has become, among many 25- to 45-year-olds, a country of perfectionist workaholics.”

On a lighter note, he points out the colossal improvement in Russian food since the days of greasy gristle, shortages and squalor that marked Soviet gastronomy. He might have also highlighted improvements in transport by road, rail and air—where progress, incidentally, has accelerated since the Yeltsin years.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Aron deplores the direction Russia has taken under Vladimir Putin. He laments lawlessness (especially the arbitrary force of the executive), the failure to renew Soviet-era power infrastructure and the resulting risk of energy shortages.

He argues that Russia has neither the means nor the will to be a global superpower. It may complain, but it accepts the rules of the global game on issues such as terrorism and proliferation (old cold-war hawks may raise an eyebrow here). But his main point is that by centralising Russia and removing constitutional checks and balances, the Kremlin has made the system highly unstable. It lacks the military, political, economic and bureaucratic elements necessary to make Soviet-style authoritarian rule work properly. That—he says tantalisingly—may risk the unravelling of the Russian state itself.

12 comments:

David Edenden said...

When communism fell in Eastern Europe, I was sure that the EU would offer to immediately include all these countries as "associate members" including Russia. Each would be able to progress to full membership at their own pace. The EU would have its own army and Nato would would immediately be dissolved as a cold war relic. The OSCE would be reformed and re-named. The US would still part of the OSCE, but could withdraw its troops, redeploy them else where and save a ton of money.

Why the EU chose to make the Eastern European countries jump through hoops by having petty EU politicians pontificate to hapless ex-commies about attaining EU values while pointing a Nato dagger at the heart of Russia, ... I really don't know.

It is interesting to note that 10 years after WW2, West Germany was admitted into Nato, while 18 years after the collapse of communism, Russia, still disrespected, is out in the cold!

It's a plot I tell ya!

Note to George Bush: The American troops in Europe would have come in handy in Iraq today!

My Blog:
The Macedonian Tendency
http://the-macedonian-tendency.blogspot.com/

dmitriy said...

>That compares well with the record of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader from 1985-91, who admirably let the Berlin Wall come down, but also allowed his uniformed thugs to slaughter unarmed demonstrators in Lithuania and Georgia.


Edward, please look at the photos on this page.

http://www.ileta.com/Military.html

DG (Baron James Shortt) directs Estonian Specops in TV Station Tallinn (Estonia) 1990.

British uniformed thugs in Estonia.
You ought to know it, you were a reporter in Estonia.

Edward Lucas said...

Yes I met Mr Shortt once. He was briefly a "bodyguard" to Lennart Meri in June 1990 but he soon moved on. I don't find anything on the internet to confirm his claim to the peerage or anything else. He wasn't in uniform (not being a member of any British armed forces unit: thus anything he wore then was fancy dress); he wasn't a thug; and didn't do anything important.

Giustino said...

Why the EU chose to make the Eastern European countries jump through hoops by having petty EU politicians pontificate to hapless ex-commies about attaining EU values while pointing a Nato dagger at the heart of Russia, ... I really don't know.

The NATO dagger concept is predicated on the idea of NATO as some sort of base for an invasion of Russia.

Because if it is, as it claims to be, an organization based on collective defense, then NATO membership in Estonia or Finland poses no threat to Russia because, allegedly, Russia recognizes and respects these countries sovereignty and would never interfere militarily in a sovereign, neighboring country, right?

Russia would never join NATO for the same reason that it won't let foreign companies access its upstream energy resources. It wants to have its own thing and do what it wants with it. The last thing Russia would have wanted is a meddling "international' presence in Kosovo.

The other smaller countries wanted to join NATO because they can't defend themselves from a larger, historical aggressor without working together. Hence the need for "collective defense."

Anyway, why blame ourselves constantly for what happens in Russia. We are inclined to treat Russia like we saw Boris Yeltsin, as a loveable but hopeless alcoholic. We think we can change him and that it's our responsibility that he doesn't fall back on his own habits.

In reality, we should only be willing to help those who can help themselves. Is it Russia' fault that the US is mired in Iraq? Should Russia have done more to stop us from pursuing such catastrophic military action? What kind of moronic psychology places all the blame on a third party for ones' own failures?

If Russia is succeeding, then that's Russia's success. If it fails, then that is Russia's failure.

As for the Baltics, it was Stalin's big error to liquidate the sovereignty of the Baltic countries and to attempt his invasion of Finland. At a time when the USSR was limping into the 1950s, it had its goons chasing down schoolboys in the forests of Estonia and deporting thousands to Siberia, as if that would make communism more effective.

Now that they are independent again, everyone knows the Estonians, say, are efficient managers. The country's economy grows at 10 percent per year. Tallinn is no longer the gray socialist hole of 1990. Yet the whiny Russian foreign ministers are still pursuing their failed policy of trying to pick apart the lasting settlement of 1918.

Russia wastes so much time and energy on trying to destabilize and meddle in its neighbors' affairs. Why not try reaching all those old pensioners in Leningrad oblast that don't have functioning toilets or telephone lines in 2007? That might be a start.

I don't know who creates the Kremlin's priorities, but they are out of wack. And since Russia has chosen an undemocratic course, that can only mean bad things. It seems that Russia is plagued by these cycles. They want their tsar, but when things get rough they tend to take their tsar and his family down into the basement, kill them, and bury them in unmarked graves.

What does this all mean for Comrade Putin? I hope he lives long enough to have a peaceful state funeral like Yeltsins. That's my hope for Russia right there.

David Edenden said...

Someone amously said that Nato was designed to:

Keep Russia out.
Keep America in.
Keep Germany divided.

I do believe that there is a Nato mission that is unfinished. They want the partiton of Russia.

See

Superman Obama, Ignore Ignatius's Advice, Brzezinski is Kryptonite
http://david-edenden.blogspot.com/2007/03/superman-obama-ignore-ignatiuss-advice.html

Nothing is Free said...

giustino,

I think you are suffering from the delusions of grandeur of a soldier sitting in some trench, thinking his part of the front is the most important, or that everywhere else is pretty much the same. That's the drinking-straw view of things. There is a tremour in Russia, and you infer a nuclear test. Please show me how Russia's "meddling" in other countries costs her anything at all.

Giustino said...

I think you are suffering from the delusions of grandeur of a soldier sitting in some trench, thinking his part of the front is the most important, or that everywhere else is pretty much the same. That's the drinking-straw view of things.

I think you understand the nature of bureaucracy, and that in 1991 there was no way that an institution like NATO would be dismantled for the sole purpose of "not wounding Russian pride."

When you have an organization like that, with so many jobs and egos invested in its infrastructure, you might change the mission statement, but, especially at this point in the lifetime of institutions, the idea that it would be dismantled is a joke.

We might as well try and dismantle the UN too. Does the UN really stand for what we think it stands for? Good luck!

So why is Estonia in NATO? Estonia will have troops by next year in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Sudan. Looks like "collective defense", acts like "collective defense". Of course, having a NATO mission in Afghanistan is intrinsically anti-Russian (sarcasm).


There is a tremour in Russia, and you infer a nuclear test. Please show me how Russia's "meddling" in other countries costs her anything at all.

I am thinking about the long-run. Because Russian democracy is basically dead, the support for the government is held together by the belief that Putin is overseeing economic development, and so democracy is an unnecessary luxury.

But we have to ask ourselves, why do we care whether or not the Russians have democracy. Is it because we simply like the way it sounds? Because we are all strident democrats? I find that hard to believe.

The real reason why we should insist on democratic principles in Russia is that when the reason for supporting the state (economic development) falls through, and there are no acceptable vehicles for redress of grievances, then that leads to the potential of instability and really bad things happening in Russia.

As for the last point, the meddling I referred to concerned Russia's disasterous policies in the Baltic countries -- Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania in the 20th century.

At the end of the 1940s, Russia was a devastated mess. But it still found the resources to fight guerilla wars with Baltic partisans or deport thousands of people to prison labor camps in Siberia. That was the insanity of the Soviet Union and ultimately why it failed and failed hard in the Baltics.

But Russia today still at some base level doesn't understand *why* it failed, and it attempts still (Bronze Soldier controversy) to play the same cards with the same result: failure.

All the backdoor deals and pressure resulted in the election of Toomas Hendrik Ilves president and reelection of Andrus Ansip as prime minister. If I were *really* cynical, I would think they actually like Ansip, because they never stop doing him political favors.

Nothing is Free said...

giustino,

I agree with what you said about NATO, UN, but I don't see how that applies to Russia's "meddling". It doesn't cost much, and most of it is just empty rhetoric for internal consumption. In 6 months time all will be forgotten (at least in Russia). I don't think democracy is necessary for economic development, although there must be some kind of glass ceiling, which is probably 10 years away for Russia at current growth rates. After that, who knows? If the economy tanks, the government will become as popular as Yeltsin's overnight. But there is no way in hell that Russia will attack Estonia or Latvia, etc.

What I fear more is Russia hitting the glass ceiling, and instead of reform (economic and political) to fuel further growth, she will stagnate. 1970s redux. A mildly autocratic government can persist in that kind of situation for a long time.

cancer said...

It's good to see that people recognising Jim Short [sorry, Chevalier The Baron of Castleshortt and a lot of false honours, awards and military career] as a "nobody".

A quick Google of Jim Shortt could prove quite enlightening.

Anton said...

Same old Giustino, manages to "stick" Estonia into every argument, as if it is the centre of the world.

Giustino said...

It's the center of my world because I live here, Anton :) I still can't believe that this ominous Russia is the same one I see from across the lake.

Anton said...

You're just like Ansip, instead of opening your eyes and having a look around what is hapening in your country,all you seem to do is stare across the lake.