To Our Readers
The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Rereading my recent Moscow Times columns, I find that their negative tone conveys a wrong impression. Actually, I believe that the decade since Vladimir Putin became prime minister has been Russia’s Golden Age. I’m eager to set the record straight — not only because it is August, often a calamitous month in Russia, but also because troubling signs, ranging from the worsening economic crisis to increasingly brazen political murders, are multiplying.
Over the past 10 years, Russia has prospered. Consumers have not had as wide a choice of goods and services — which they can also afford to buy — since 1913. Oil wealth may not have been divided equitably or used rationally, but money has trickled down, at least in Moscow.
By the standards of the recent past, Russians have been remarkably free. There are no limits on foreign travel, and everyone can maintain contacts with foreigners without fear. Aside from the main television channels, journalists can generally write whatever they wish and criticize and ridicule even topmost officials. There is religious freedom and no ideological line that artists and writers must toe. Access to the Internet remains unrestricted.
Until the war with Georgia, Russia had been at peace with its neighbors. It still respects post-Soviet borders, even though it lost historic territories and a large number of Russians are stranded in former Soviet republics.
All in all, the next generation may look back at the Putin era with nostalgia. However, it is precisely the root of the problem. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov this year declared that Russia could become the world’s most attractive country to live in by 2020. His words deserve to be carved in stone, along with that fabulous declaration by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: “The current generation of the Soviet people will live under communism.”
Based on every parameter — from incomes, life expectancy and environmental protection to highway quality, corruption, crime and legal protection — Russia is actually one of the worst places to live, at least in Europe. In 10 years of oil-fed prosperity, it has become even less attractive in some ways. Ugly nationalist, illiberal and intolerant forces have become more vociferous, and nostalgia for putative Soviet greatness and revanchist dreams has come to the fore. Any regime change in today’s Russia is bound to be for the worse.
I recently spoke to an American businessman who praised Putin highly — if only because Putin has kept out some very angry people with very murky ideologies. However, the fact that those murky ideologies are on the rise is largely the fault of the Putin regime. At home, it opted for crony state capitalism, rewarding its inner circle by increasing the role of the state in the economy and rolling back liberal reforms. In foreign policy, Russia engaged in a low-grade confrontation with the West, accusing the United States of infringing on Russia’s spheres of influence and picking petty diplomatic squabbles with its neighbors.
Russia is living in a self-imposed international isolation and has an inefficient, nontransparent economy dominated by corrupt bureaucrats and well-connected clans. Shameless personal enrichment has become the sole preoccupation of its elites, who see themselves as temporary caretakers. Much like the Soviet Union, the system fears change and has no mechanism for changing peacefully. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, it offers no solidarity of equal poverty and no hope for a better future. Now, there are the haves and the have-nots and an every-man-for-himself mentality. It does not make for a pretty picture.
Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.