Vienna, August 31 – Russia’s problems are so serious and are certain to grow worse in the coming months that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin should copy the approach Nikita Khrushchev adopted with regard to Stalin as a way of radically changing the country’s direction and pulling it back from the brink, according to Moscow commentator Yevgeny Gontmakher.
In a comment on the “Osobaya bukva” site, Gontmakher, a senior economist at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development, says that Russia’s economic indicators have not improved in recent months, despite official claims, and that in fact these measures “continue to fall” (www.specletter.com/obcschesto/2009-08-25/revoljutsii-ne-budet-budet-bunt.html).
The majority of Russians, however, “have not yet felt the impact of the crisis on themselves,” not only because for Russians “an economic recession is connected with a fall in wages” – which has not yet happened – but also because thanks to the shocks of the last two decades, “the Russian people is insanely adaptive.”
Indeed, Gontmakher continues, people in that country “have become accustomed not to glance at the future” but instead “look at the situation as it is at the moment.” That is all the more true just now because of what he calls “the summer factor” – the tendency of Russians to ignore politics and economics during the warm months when they tend their gardens.
But with the change of seasons, “the situation is going to radically change,” the Moscow analyst says, and in November, “several factors and tendencies will combine” and lead to an increase in tensions within Russian society. And as it does, both the Russian people and the Russian government will react.
With further economic decline, there will not be enough money in the regions and republics for day-to-day operations, “not to speak about any investments, construction and the like.” Indeed, Gontmakher predicts, there won’t be enough money to pay wages and salaries. And at that point, “Moscow won’t be able to help at all.”
In such a situation, he goes on, “it is completely possible that the federal powers that be will encounter the problem of tax separatism,” with regional leaders refusing to transfer tax collections to Moscow because “they are not in a position to fulfill their own” obligations to the population. They’ve already spent in six months the funds that were supposed to last nine or ten.
And such problems could be compounded by an increase in “the number of technogenic catastrophes,” as the government lacks the funds or the will to repair or update key infrastructure as appears to have been at least in part the reasons behind the recent disaster at the Sayan-Shushen hydroelectric dam.
“Sooner or later,” Gontmakher says, “and by sooner [he] has in mind months, the highest Russian leadership will have to think about how to correct the situation in the economy over the next few years” lest economic problems provoke “the pitiless revolt” of the population against the powers that be.
The only alternative – and the Moscow economist says that it is “desirable” at least by comparison – is “some kind of modernization directed from above.” In the current case, he suggests, that means a new approach articulated and implemented by the real power in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Because Putin bears “the heavy load of the past – the persecution of Khodorkovsky, pressure on the press and the destruction of civil society, and an inadequate foreign policy” – the prime minister needs to pursue a course in some ways analogous to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, breaking with the system that he helped create.
What would such a “’Khrushchevization’” of Russia require? It would require Moscow to stop acting as if it alone can solve everything, Gontmakher says. It would require taking “real steps to involve society in the resolution of its own problems.” And it would require that the government disentangle itself from the economy.
Obviously, Putin and his regime are going to be reluctant to take such steps. They would open “’a Pandora’s box,’” and “there is the danger of repeating the fate of Gorbachev,” who began reforms but then lost control of them. Putin is certainly aware of these risks, Gontmakher says, but he insists that “to do nothing carries still greater risks.”
Getting business moving again, the Moscow economist continues, “is impossible in the conditions of an ossified political system. It can be returned to life only with a shift to a dialogue of equals between society and the powers that be. [And] with the recognition by the latter of the errors it has committed. That is important.”
In short, “the salvation of the economy is unthinkable without political reform,” and that challenge is why Russia faces a much tougher task in the current crisis than do Western countries. They face “purely economic” challenges, but Russia address everything at once – curing the financial system, returning civil society to life and stimulating political competition.
So far, Gontmakher says, “the president and the prime minister are sitting and thinking,” while “society has remained silent.” But Russians “have a tradition to wait until someone says something first. If the first outburst in this case comes from the crowd, the population will not stop at that.”
But if the first comes from Putin and the current leadership, then there is the possibility that the errors of the past can be overcome without the country and its system being destroyed in the process. That is only a possibility, Gontmakher warns, and it is not growing but becoming less probable.
“Every day of silence” on the part of Putin and the leaders, the Moscow economist says, will “push off the exit of Russia from the crisis by a week if not by a month. The crisis will become ever more structural. The population will be degraded,” and ultimately the social and political system will collapse.
Gontmakher ends with an analogy: Russia is sick with a cancerous tumor. If it is removed while the growth is still small, there is a chance to save the life of the patient. But if it is allowed to fester and grow larger, then it will be “impossible to save” Russia in this historical cycle.
Consequently, the Moscow scholar says, Moscow must not wait. With all the risks, “it is better to cut now.” Fifty years ago, Khrushchev understood that and acted to de-Stalinize. The question now is whether Putin will understand and take the actions necessary to overcome the consequences of the system the prime minister himself helped to create.