Vladimir Putin may or may not be dismantling Yeltsinism. But he is not dismantling ‘democracy’, for no such system existed in Russia before his accession to power. After a decade of multiparty elections, neither the rich nor the powerful seem to take the slightest interest in the well-being of the electorate, even though a dim regard for public support may have inspired authorities to escalate the conflict in Chechnya and throttle critics in the press. That the Duma’s switch from pointless opposition under Yeltsin to opportunistic servility under Putin has made little difference to the average Russian voter illustrates the immateriality of democratic rites and symbols to the everyday struggle for survival. A similar odour of irrelevance clings to the dying freedom of the press, which, although boisterous and engaging under Yeltsin, was also commonly perceived as merely another weapon in the arsenal of rival financial-industrial groups. Even freedom of movement can appear to be useful primarily to a few mysteriously enriched Russians seeking periodically to escape their country and stash plundered assets in sanctuaries abroad. Since basic rights patently serve the interests of a few without, as is equally plain, improving the lives of the many, it is not surprising that Russia’s shaky liberalism, now under siege, finds few defenders inside the country.
Or outside the country. The return of the secret police and intelligence apparatus to centre stage, combined with Moscow’s decision to continue selling advanced military technology to Iran, has naturally galvanised American critics of the Clinton Administration’s miscellaneous attempts to ‘promote American values’ in Russia over the past decade. Condoleezza Rice and other members of President Bush’s foreign policy team have even begun echoing those leftist critics, such as Stephen Cohen, who miss no opportunity to denounce ‘the disastrous failure of US policy towards post-Communist Russia’.
Best known for his 1973 study of Bukharin, Cohen is presumably well prepared to imagine how Russian history might have gone if events had unfolded differently. This spirited volume is his J’Accuse!, his excoriation of ‘the folly of the American crusade to reinvent Russia’. He summarises his main thesis as follows: ‘the US Government, enthusiastically supported by many American journalists and scholars, actively encouraged a Yeltsin regime that enabled a small clique of predatory insiders to plunder Russia’s most valuable 20th-century assets, a process that continued during the early months of Putin’s rule, while most of its people were being impoverished and millions of them dying prematurely for lack of elementary resources.’ Disentangling his sweeping indictment, we can isolate five distinct claims: (1) a political, economic, ecological and medical disaster of major proportions has befallen Russia; (2) this calamity indirectly poses mortal dangers to the West; (3) the Clinton Administration’s policy towards Russia was uninformed and ill-designed; (4) it also played an important role in bringing about the devastation we now observe; and (5) post-Communist Russia could have taken a sounder path, if Washington had heeded less myopic counsel.
During the 1990s, Cohen explains, Russian civilisation itself came close to melting down. In some ways, the country – outside its capital – no longer belongs to the modern world. To conceive the decade as a second Great Depression is to understate the extent of the calamity. Cohen favours more arresting comparisons such as the Holocaust, World War Two and thermonuclear devastation, almost implying that Yeltsin inflicted deeper wounds than Stalin. To drive home his claim that Russia’s internal woes also pose a threat to the West, he adds that ‘the nuclear danger is greater today than it was under the Soviet regime.’ Leaks from decommissioned nuclear submarines in the North Sea and lax security at plutonium storage sites have received a fair degree of attention elsewhere, but Cohen makes more of the degradation of Russia’s early warning system, which adds a kind of national blindness to other forms of state incapacity. One consequence of this visual impairment is that Russia may not be able to distinguish an incoming Iranian rocket from a missile launched by an American submarine.
Cohen flirts with the thought that, frightened by its former foe’s residual research-and-development capacities, Washington designed and implemented policies meant to buttress Nato expansion by demodernising, disorganising and irreversibly weakening the post-1991 Russian state. But in the end he finds more parochialism than cunning in the ‘virtual crusade to transform post-Communist Russia into some facsimile of the American democratic and capitalist system’. The ‘high-living private “advisers”’, with little or no knowledge of the Russian language, deputised ‘to build a neo-America on the Moscow River’, may have been a mix of idealists, adventure seekers and opportunists, but they barely understood which country they were in and had no clue how to accomplish the task at hand. Their principal mission was not only to ‘teach transition’ but also, and more narcissistically, to make Russia resemble America. If this was a crusade, as Cohen’s title implies, it was a children’s crusade, for the desire to make ‘them’ look like ‘us’ both sounds and is essentially puerile.
Cohen is especially incensed by the trahison des clercs, the participation of journalists and scholars in what he considers the greatest American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. The disinformation campaign conducted by prominent Russia watchers, he contends, filtered out the bad news and thus helped sustain a policy that would otherwise have been seen much earlier to be failing. He insinuates that the journalists and scholars in question compromised themselves morally, neglecting their professional duties in order to sup with the mighty. The truly decisive factor, however, may have been the sincere bafflement of Americans when faced with social distress on such a massive scale and their instinctive fondness for stories with happy endings. The omnipotence fantasies excited by Washington’s suddenly unchallenged hegemony – this seems to be the implication – turned the harmless altruism of the untravelled into a globally destabilising force.
The defining illusion, according to Cohen, was that ‘post-Communist Russia has been in a benevolent “transition”.’ The locomotive to market democracy has left the station, and those who refuse to clamber aboard will soon be punished by history. This was the fraudulent narrative that, for an entire decade, deflected criticisms aimed at an appallingly inept and self-defeating policy. Despite the bitter protests of Cohen and a handful of his colleagues (such as Peter Reddaway and Jerry Hough), the mytho-poetic concept of ‘transition’ became, and to some extent remains, ‘a near orthodoxy’.
Most Americans not only have a weak grasp of foreign cultures but also tend to interpret developments elsewhere in the light of their own aberrant political history. This at least is how Cohen explains why ‘the United States does not have the right, wisdom or power to intrude so deeply into Russia’s internal affairs – indeed into its destiny.’ To parochialism we can add two factors that he does not especially emphasise but which may help to explain, if not to mitigate, America’s peculiar misunderstandings of post-Communist Russia. The first is a tempting but erroneous analogy with the political transformation of postwar West Germany, successfully orchestrated by outsiders, but only after a shattering military defeat. And the second is enclave development: that is, the existence of some easily accessible bright spots (such as Moscow) where American ‘experts’ were able to find anecdotal confirmation that the anticipated transition was moving along smoothly.
After 1991, Sovietologists of all political stripes were frequently dismissed as out of touch with kaleidoscopically changing realities and unable or unwilling to bury the Cold War controversies that had engaged their passions for decades. Cohen, who remained more active and visible than many of his colleagues, regrets that his warnings, published throughout the 1990s, ‘went unneeded, unheard and unheeded’ and were even ‘relegated to the “ashbin of history”’. He is thinking especially of his fundamental complaint that the ‘transition narrative’ crudely falsified post-Communist developments. Not that any more persuasive narratives were available. Attempts to depict 1989-91 as a ‘revolution’, for instance, consistently faltered on the absence of a revolutionary ideology or revolutionary class. Cohen’s protests to the contrary, the immensely complex and still unfolding geopolitical consequences of these years exceeded the grasp even of clairvoyant minds like his own. And what could be more natural than for Western observers, having contested Communist autocracy in the name of democratic freedom, to presume that the undoing of Communism would sweep away all obstacles to democracy?
Cohen toys with several mutually inconsistent explanations for what he sees as the spectacular miscarriage of the US’s Russia policy during the 1990s. For instance, in some passages he asserts that ‘a fully privatised “free market” system . . . is in conflict with Russia’s tradition.’ He even cites Putin, with apparent approval, to the effect that Russia will never become ‘a second edition’ of the US or UK. When mining this vein, he implies that endowment is fate and says explicitly that Russia ‘can’t leap out of its own history’. The attempt to transplant American-style democratic capitalism in Russia ‘presumes that a political-economic system can be artificially and firmly implanted in a different, much older civilisation.’
Having laboured for decades to understand Russia’s tortuous past, historians naturally tend to exaggerate the importance for current developments of the knowledge they have slowly amassed, but Cohen sometimes veers close to a cultural determinism whereby any political strategising is mocked by refractory habits. This curious deference to inherited constraints explains why an essentially left-wing work has been warmly received by conservatives, including some associated with the new Administration, who scoff at efforts to rinse the past out of the present.
Cohen’s delight at flinging Burkean arguments in the faces of neoliberals is one of the most striking features of this book. When it comes down to it, America promoted ‘another Bolshevik-like experiment’ in Russia. Fanatical Westernisers not only spurned gradualism and embraced extremist measures, they also engaged in from-scratch social engineering, sacrificing the well-being of the current generation (with only one life to live) for some unattainable utopia located in the distant future. They were flushed with a combat mission, broke eggs to make imaginary omelettes and coined Orwellian phrases to obscure grim realities.
Not even for the sake of attacking his enemies, however, can an old radical such as Cohen consistently march under conservative colours. Far from emphasising the obduracy of Russia’s ‘older civilisation’, his earlier work stressed the Soviet Union’s potential for a fresh turn towards democracy or at least democratic socialism. That Russians in centuries past have invited Westerners to help solve domestic problems, moreover, is something he knows perfectly well. Importing, or pretending to import Western models is just as authentically Russian as denouncing or pretending to denounce presumptuous Western advice. Indeed, asking for help first and feeling indignant about it afterwards seem to reinforce each other rather neatly.
After first explaining America’s abortive foreign policy by invoking Russia’s inhospitable traditions, Cohen goes on to explain it a second time by arguing that these traditions proved too hospitable by half. There is nothing more Russian, it turns out, than the ‘imposing of Western ideas of change from above’. Aggressive modernisation, with little regard for human costs, is ‘an old tradition’ in Russia. About a parasitic elite living in privileged aloofness while the passive majority struggle for survival, he can only say: ‘all this had been seen before in Russian history.’ Similarly, Yeltsin’s behaviour in office reflected ‘recurring Russian leadership practices’. He was ‘a monarch-like president who ruled mostly by decree in defiance of a Parliament existing anxiously in the shadow of its recently destroyed predecessor’. Sadly enough, Gorbachev, whom Cohen hails as ‘the greatest reformer in Russian history’, may have been less in step with Russia’s traditions than Yeltsin, whom Cohen viscerally loathes.
The emerging consensus that Russia’s ‘transition to democracy and markets’ has been hopelessly derailed is breathing new life into a series of disagreeable stereotypes about the country, its culture and its inhabitants. If everyone agrees that Russia is a calamitous nation with an inescapable history of collective mismanagement and personal irresponsibility, who can castigate the West? The IMF is not answerable, after all, if Russians drink themselves to death and refuse to wear seat-belts. Cohen is acutely ware of this trend and it is an additional reason why, after espousing the ‘cultural legacies’ thesis with great gusto, he turns and repudiates it just as forcefully. How could he consistently associate himself with Russophobes such as Richard Pipes, who want us to believe that Russians have authoritarianism stitched into their genetic code?
Deep contextual insight is ostensibly what leads Cohen to dismiss foreign blueprints and game plans. Russia should develop ‘an indigenous economic policy’, he says, and one that is ‘designed at home’. When trying to be helpful rather than merely critical, however, he offers the Russians two impeccably Western models. Although they evolved in societies strikingly unlike Russia today, the New Deal and Social Democracy turn out to be remedies almost perfectly tailored to the country’s grave afflictions. Indeed, in one passage, Cohen veritably pleads with Russia to import what, in his own words, were once ‘orthodox Western practices’. He has in mind protectionist tariffs, demand management, investment policy, price controls, banking oversight and so forth. By arguing that Russia could borrow such Western models while remaining true to its own traditions and circumstances, Cohen defends a sensible position, but one that sorts ill with the rest of his book.
Of more lasting interest than this to-and-froing about tradition is Cohen’s exploration of the shortcomings of neoclassical economics in the face of complex political realities. When he writes about ‘a crusade blinded by ideology’ and adds that the designers and apologists of America’s Russia policy were not so much opportunists as ‘true believers’, he has the famous Washington Consensus in mind. The ‘technical advisers’ despatched to help Russia make the transition to liberalism were ‘missionary economists’, capitalist evangelists proselytising for a dubious worldview. These sectarian zealots espoused a contestable hierarchy of values. They attributed supreme importance, for example, to ‘an American-style excess of goods’, far beyond the reach of any Russian who wished to act honestly and legally. They therefore inadvertently fomented, or at least blessed, the lawless pursuit of wealth. They stressed budgetary discipline, deregulation and tight-money policy at the expense of investment in infrastructure and productive capacity. They used ‘conditionality’ to pressure the Russian Government into transforming a fiscal into a social deficit, that is, into balancing the budget by curtailing public support for healthcare, retirement and education. In other words, they attempted to export to Russia not a real Western-style system, but an idealised model, imagined but never tried in advanced market democracies. They urged the Russians to build not a free society but a caricature thereof, namely, a market economy with stripped-down regulations and shrunken social transfers. The proselytisers were not so naive as to believe that liberalism bereft of public services would be popular among the disadvantaged majority. Instead, they calculated, fairly accurately as it turned out, that Russian democracy and civil society, unlike democracy and civil society back home, were simply too anaemic and disorganised to fend off painful cutbacks of cradle-to-grave benefits.
Western economists, missionary or not, are most comfortable studying countries where capitalists invest, where property rights are well protected and statistics are reliable enough to permit mathematical modelling. They also find it simpler to discuss relative values, such as higher or lower incomes, than absolute values, such as life or death. Why entrepreneurs refrain from using plastic explosives to eliminate competitors is a question they do not ordinarily address. Nor do they pay special attention to massive and cruelly abused asymmetries of power. Their sophisticated theories are therefore prone to founder on Russian realities. If utilities charge consumers a price high enough to cover their inputs, for instance, new supplies of energy can eventually be expected to come on line. But this may be only in the Keynesian long run, by which time many consumers, especially pensioners, having been priced out of the market for subsistence goods, will have frozen to death in their unheated apartments. The predictable drop in demand reveals that the price mechanism may automatically restore equilibrium, but will not always do so by eliciting further supply. In such a case, demand proves more elastic than supply, since utilities are expensive to build and pensioners stop needing the heat they cannot afford once they are dead.
The pre-eminence of economists with a monetarist focus among those who designed and managed America’s Russia policy had some serious consequences. For starters, they did not think through how their Holy Grail of low inflation might interact with institutional development. To how low a level did they need to reduce inflation, for instance, to compensate for a defunding of the court system? The problem lies deeper than a lack of attention to the origins of institutions. More generally, neoclassical economics provides little guidance about how to create the kind of politically well organised society presupposed by a well functioning market. It does not explain how to give political authorities sufficient power to repress force and fraud among individuals and private groups while simultaneously preventing political authorities from using their repressive powers for the state apparatus’s own corporate enrichment and advantage.
Although they occupy only a tiny spot in history, free-market systems are frequently presented as a spontaneous outgrowth of human nature. The illusion that a dismantling of central planning would automatically ‘loose’ free markets across Russia was born of this ideology. It promoted not so much a neglect of laws and other rules of the capitalist game as a disregard for the complex legislative, bureaucratic and judicial apparatus that, in line with a shared standard of the public interest, creates, interprets, readjusts, sculpts exceptions to, and applies law in changing circumstances and in response to evolving demands.
In one agreeably entertaining section, Cohen makes an inventory of the preposterous vocabulary of America’s star-struck transitologists. They gave the name of ‘banks’ to money-laundering outfits. They described as ‘entrepreneurs’ schemers who enriched themselves at public expense by exploiting political contacts. They referred to formerly state-owned enterprises that still depended on massive budgetary subsidies as ‘privatised’. They depicted the civil war among oligarchs to seize the country’s natural-resource wealth as a ‘rocky path’ to a free-market system. They persisted in applying the ‘free market’ label to a system thick with monopolies where creditors and competitors alike were routinely murdered by hit-men. They gave the name of ‘monetarism’ to a policy that resulted in the proliferation of barter transactions and the virtual demonetisation of the economy. Focusing exclusively on the growth of the stock exchange index, they christened the world’s worst economy as ‘the best performing emerging market’. They used the word ‘capitalism’ to denote a system without stable property rights or other conditions for encouraging investment and in which fraudulent bankruptcy is considered a normal business practice. And they never stopped calling by the name of ‘reform’ a scam to loot the country’s wealth and impoverish the vast majority of its citizens.
Cohen’s wit here is bitter and truthful. The main story of Russia’s first post-Communist decade was not one of an incomplete transition to free markets and democracy, it was a story of redistribution, of the outrageously unfair reallocation of state property, wholly undisciplined by democratic processes and unregulated by any conceivable norm of justice. More at home with the idea of private property than the idea of public patrimony, foreign advisers failed to bring into focus the basic iniquity of this economic development. For the elemental wrong had less to do with the violation of specific individual rights than with the scooping up, by a few insiders, of assets accumulated during decades of collective effort managed by an asphyxiating state. The civil war among financial industrial groups was and is about who can appropriate the country’s enormous wealth. One reason property rights remain unstable in Russia is that rapacious groups hoping to seize assets recently acquired by rivals have a perverse incentive to keep them unstable. Perhaps because their time horizons are short, they have willingly enlisted the collaboration of the procuracy and security services, who have their own, not always mercenary, interests in injecting uncertainty into the business community. Because property rights remain unstable, potential investors remain gun-shy, in a literal sense. Wealthy Russians prefer capital flight to the domestic reinvestment more typical of the American robber barons who helped to build up their country, rather than simply picking its bones dry.
Economic theory does not normally address the question of how to mobilise and maintain effective political coalitions. As I’ve said, those behind America’s Russia policy assumed that economic liberalisation could be sustained politically even without the regulatory and welfare functions that, in the West, make a market society palatable to its less fortunate members. They assumed this because they knew Russia’s citizenry to be basically demobilised. No enraged ‘politics of the street’, threatening the rich, was on the horizon. But the absence of effective resistance does not mean the presence of effective support. A potential middle-class constituency for market reforms was vaporised by the hyperinflation and confiscatory devaluations of the 1990s. This sharp decline in the value of private savings left liberal reformers only one well-organised partner with whom to form a political alliance, namely the plunderers of Russia’s natural-resource wealth. But although they could bankroll an electoral campaign, these ‘oligarchs’ were not about to lobby for the rule of law.
Since they sell natural resources to foreign consumers and buy luxury goods from foreign producers, they feel only tenuously connected to their own country and its citizens. They want to keep Russia open to the world economy, but they are not acutely interested in improving the security of acquisitions and transactions for most domestic consumers and producers. They want to keep on stealing, for one thing, and they also realise that pervasive uncertainty gives them some advantage over foreigner competitors, who naturally prefer the reliable and impartial enforcement of clear rules known in advance to bargaining in the dark.
It is one thing to argue that America’s advice to Russia was wrong-headed, and quite another to prove that it was taken. The fact that the US Administration blessed changes that eviscerated Russia’s public healthcare system does not, by itself, prove that these changes occurred because of American pressure or support. Cohen becomes less convincing when discussing ‘the malpractice by Russia-watchers that contributed so greatly to the debacle’.
For one thing, it is difficult to estimate the effect of the neoliberal crusade without comparing the Russian Federation to similarly situated countries where there was no such a crusade. No army of ideological advisers flocked to Bulgaria after the fall of Communism, for example, but the Bulgarian economy and polity became almost as criminalised and corrupt as the Russian. A single counter-example proves nothing, of course, but it does suggest that massive American intrusions, however delusional in conception and however ineptly planned and managed, may have been a sideshow. Cohen fails to pursue this line of argument, however, not only because he wishes to blame the US Government, but also, apparently, because he wants to safeguard the autonomy of Russian studies from the ‘intrusive arrogance’ of comparativists.
That causal claims remain ungrounded without comparative analysis may nevertheless have crossed his mind. That at least would explain why he not only asserts but also denies that American policy had ‘serious consequences’. Or perhaps personal sympathies and antipathies simply made him unwilling, in the end, to present Russians as clueless marionettes manipulated by artful American puppeteers. The lip-service liberalism of their Russian hosts, who knew the lie of the land, presumably outclassed the lap-top liberalism of clueless Americans on tour. Russian poverty is said to be ‘made in the USA’, Cohen can therefore conclude, only because boastful Americans persist in taking credit for developments in which they actually had no hand.
Ultimately, he downgrades America’s fault to mere ‘complicity’, meaning that the US, rather than orchestrating the Russian collapse, sullied its prestige by overselling Yeltsin’s successes and failing to protest in time. The flaw lies less in US policies, it turns out, than in Americans’ obliviousness, complacency, self-involvement and lack of compassion. (More deeply moved by Moscow’s defaulting on the Paris Club debt than by its failure to pay pension arrears to the destitute elderly, Europeans are also guilty here.) This is why Cohen can declare, in perhaps the key sentence of his book, that ‘Yeltsin may have lost Russia, but we are losing our soul there.’ Americans in particular are becoming morally hollow because they did not display solidarity with those who were despoiled of everything after 1991. They thereby disappointed those ‘Russians who once believed in a wise and compassionate America’.
By the year 2000, Cohen observes, many who previously applauded Russia’s ‘transition to market democracy’ had finally seen the light. The arrival of Putin, in the wake of the devaluation of the rouble in August 1998, convinced many former cheerleaders of the ‘transition’ to throw up their hands in despair. Having shed their illusions, moreover, they made a shameless dash for the back door. Denial has now gone so far that ‘it appears that hardly anyone was ever part of the “Washington Consensus” behind . . . the crusade to remake Russia.’ What piques Cohen is that many of the country’s leading editorialists are now echoing his earlier views ‘without noticing that their opinions have changed’.
The greatest ‘shock’ to which Russia was exposed at the beginning of the 1990s was not in fact neoliberal economic policy, but the opening to the rest of the world of a formerly sealed-off society. Since Russia’s rust-belt industries were poorly adapted to the world market, this dramatic loosening of border controls interjected problems of massive economic adjustment that even a very well-organised and purposive government would have found difficult to manage well in the short run and impossible to solve for decades. To make matters worse, Russia’s immense natural-resource wealth presented an almost irresistible temptation to nomenklatura criminal networks. What sort of political system could have maintained its coherence – that is, could have kept its agents austerely focused on well-defined national purposes – within grasping distance of such treasures? Russian natural-resource wealth bears much greater responsibility for the pathological development of the economy than neoliberal economic models, whether imposed arrogantly by, or copied voluntarily from, the West.
Fragmentation and duplication inside the executive is not a new problem in Russia. As Cohen remarks, for instance, ‘the KGB and the military have never been natural allies.’ But the disappearance of the Communist Party vastly exacerbated turf wars and information-hoarding among disjointed components of the state. Although he has brought to heel the Duma, the governors and the oligarchs, Putin has made little progress in introducing coherence and co-ordination inside the executive branch, for example, between the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Justice and the Procuracy, or the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not to mention between the Minister of Defence and the General Staff. The Russian state today is less a unified actor, therefore, than a rickety confederation of squabbling agencies, paralysed by overlapping jurisdictions and unclear chains of command, and lobbying for irreconcilable interests without deferring much to common purposes weakly articulated by the Kremlin.
Cohen accuses US policy-makers not only of pursuing the wrong goals, but also of choosing the wrong partners. Trapped in ‘Manichean’ categories of reformers v. hardliners or liberals v. Communists, Washington made an ad hoc alliance with the Westernising sect around Yegor Gaidar, which had little or no support in Russian society. This was a formula for failure. The consequence was that the Clinton Administration, while enthusiastically pro-Kremlin, was actually ‘the most anti-Russian US Administration in modern history’.
The failure to discipline his counterfactual imagination is the most serious flaw in Cohen’s prosecutorial approach. To say that the Clinton Administration was pro-Kremlin but anti-Russian is to say that it failed to identify a leadership that honestly represented the country. But there was no such leadership to be found. Non-representativeness is the least of the Kremlin’s sins, in truth, as Cohen explains when discussing the ‘official corruption that cannibalised the nation under Yeltsin’. This is why he disregards his own admonition that Americans should refrain from instructing foreigners how to live and announces that ‘a new kind of Russian leadership is also needed.’ Russians need a leadership less devoted to personal enrichment and more devoted to the wellbeing of citizens. It is easier to associate oneself with these paternalistic sentiments, however, than to clarify how to go from here to there.
Even if we accepted the main contours of Cohen’s analysis, we would still be faced with the question: how should a chastened West now behave? Cohen offers only the following: ‘let us give generously from afar and let them decide,’ and discusses a no-strings-attached grant of hundreds of billions of dollars. Western legislatures are obviously not going to appropriate any such sum. This detail aside, to whom does Cohen suggest we write the cheque? If not to the Kremlin, then to whom? Not to the legislature rather than the executive branch, since the Duma is no more representative than the Government or the Presidential administration. That the Russian Government’s ‘policies have to be made in Moscow, not Washington’ sounds reasonable at first. But what office within which ministry in Moscow does he have in mind? By which particular Russians and Russian agencies should policies be made? Should they be made in daylight or clandestinely? Who should be included in and who excluded from the discussions? And whose interests should be taken into account and whose ignored with impunity? Or perhaps foreign donors daring to pose such prying questions should have the door slammed in their faces.
To say that Russian policies must be ‘made in Russia’ is to reduce democracy to rule by co-nationals rather than by foreigners. But there is little reason to believe that Moscow is genuinely representative of Russia or ascribes much weight to the interests of non-Muscovites. Aware that local executives are at least as corrupt as the national one, Western donors have in recent years begun to look to ‘civil society’. But relying on politically powerless, self-appointed and unaccountable groups, as Cohen himself remarks, is a counsel of despair.
No well organised and influential constituencies for a law-governed market society existed in Russia in 1991. Very few exist in 2001. Cheering for a policy incapable of winning democratic approval, the West naturally found itself allied with Russian officials who, for various reasons, were not especially sensitive to what the Russian public hoped or desired. Here Cohen strikes home. Even if its influence was negligible rather than decisive, the West had no business sponsoring a process of ‘democratisation’ in which consultative relations between public officials and citizens were largely ignored if not positively discouraged.
Yet Cohen himself seems imperfectly at home with the distinction between a strong state and one that is accountable as well as effective. Not only does he suggest that we provide massive debt relief and billions in grants to a democratically unaccountable state, he also proposes that a state wholly unanswerable to its citizens renationalise the country’s natural-resource wealth. Not even those who are most appalled by the rechannelling of that vast wealth into private villas on the Mediterranean would be gratified by its re-rechannelling into the production of ballistic missiles for sale abroad. Without accountability, what is the likelihood that the state will use any new resources flowing into its coffers for the good of its own citizens? The same question arises in the area of police and security. Cohen says ominously that the state ‘still has sufficient power, contrary to widespread perceptions – to crack down on the financial oligarchy and high-level official corruption’. The power to ‘crack down’ which he invokes lies in the hands of the FSB, the MVD, the tax police and the Procuracy. That their capacity to fabricate evidence, given lax or non-existent oversight, will be used responsibly, for public purposes, rather than for the corporate interests of law-enforcement authorities defies belief.
At one point, Cohen confidently predicts the downfall of the system that prevailed in the 1990s, ‘because it has been so cruelly unfair and unproductive that almost no Russians value it, except its oligarchs and their retainers’. To bolster his questionable assumption that unfairness breeds instability, he repeatedly mentions a ‘clamour for blood retribution’ among the dispossessed and ‘the Moscow elite’s fear of the narod’. But this has the savour of wishful thinking. While they certainly fear the secret police, the tax authorities, the Procuracy, the Interior Ministry and so forth, Russian billionaires are not particularly afraid of the street. They do not expect a social explosion because the public remains quiescent, poorly organised and busy eking out a meagre living. A greying population, moreover, makes it highly unlikely that enraged crowds with pitchforks will storm the palaces of the super-rich.
As dubious as Cohen’s expectation of social explosion, and for the same reasons, is his association of ‘the politics of confiscation’ after 1991 with earlier Soviet expropriations. There were no post-Communist kulaks, for one thing, no class of private owners who fought tooth and nail to keep their precious property from being yanked away. Some killings of managers and others occurred, but many old-regime insiders, rather than being forcibly ousted, voluntarily crossed over, converting political position to economic advantage. As a result, the Yeltsin regime, unlike the Bolsheviks, had no need to employ systematic violence to redistribute wealth. Basically, an old-new elite was able to indulge in cherry-picking unobstructed if not unobserved by an expropriated national community.
The assumption that poverty and injustice are always politically destabilising is equivalent to the belief that evildoers are automatically punished. Cohen occasionally seems to assume something of the sort, even though a student of Gorbachev’s career should know better. Indeed, the maintenance of injustice may be less destabilising politically than an attempt to alleviate the miseries of the worst off, who may ratchet up their demands if their conditions abruptly improve. In fact, Cohen draws our attention to the most obvious reason why the human tragedy of contemporary Russia will not necessarily trigger a process of renewal. While the Yeltsin system may seem unfair to most Russians, most Russians do not count. Those who do count, the country’s chequered elite, have a lucrative stake in the current injustice. Poverty and injustice can be stabilised if losers are sedated into passivity, repressive organs are well nourished, spoils are distributed intramurally, and potential centres of opposition are co-opted as they arise.
At least some important players in Russia’s foreign policy establishment today detest America more bitterly than did their predecessors in Brezhnev’s time, who saw Americans as troubled adversaries not ‘triumphalist’ preachers. It could be argued that virulent anti-Americanism has become more of a serious problem in a unipolar world than it was during the Cold War. And Washington may ultimately pay a steep price for its obliviousness to worldwide ambivalence towards American power and prosperity, and especially for its unwillingness to recognise that America’s critics are sometimes right.
The security interests of the West can be defended only if Russia sees itself as an accepted member of the world community, that is to say, only if its leaders voluntarily choose to spend scarce resources in pursuing objectives that Russia shares with the West. Elite resentment of high-handed US behaviour provides just another reason for an already disorganised Russian state to look the other way when faced with a proliferation of advanced weapons technology. This danger is exacerbated by the ‘growing markets for Moscow’s weapons and nuclear capabilities among states that already worry Washington’. As the world’s pushiest arms merchant, the United States lacks the moral credibility to instruct the Russians – who sometimes dream of an armaments-driven industrial recovery – not to peddle lethal appliances to states with mentally unstable rulers. But if the Russians eventually add nuclear and other terrifying weapons to the armoury of the weak, as the Bush Administration apparently expects them to do, the West may eventually be forced to taste the fruits of its failed crusade. Neoliberalism may also be relevant here, at least tangentially. Clandestine groups, capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction with no return address, may turn out to be the most unforgettable beneficiaries of those politically unregulated markets on which the West’s stupefying prosperity currently rests.
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