Vienna, March 22 – For most of the past two decades, Russian analysts have regularly drawn comparisons between their own country and Brazil. Indeed, there has been frequent discussion of “a Latin American variant” for Russia. But now, such comparisons do not show Russia to good advantage either now or in terms of the possibility of democratic reforms.
Two articles this week extend that discussion. In today’s “Vedomosti,” Vladislav Inozemtsev and Viktor Krasilshchikov compare Russian and Brazilian economic development since 1991, stressing that the very different approaches of the two systems have had very different outcomes (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2010/03/22/228682).
And in an essay in the current issue of “New Times,” Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, argues that Russia faces far greater challenges in overcoming its authoritarian political system than have Latin American countries with which it is often compared (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/17614/).
In their article, Inozemtsev and Krasilshchikov note that “at the start of the 1990s, the two powerful countries in different regions of the world suffered through difficult times.” Both had high inflation, both introduced economic reforms, both attracted and then put off investors, and “both with enormous hopes entered into the new millennium.”
But then their paths diverged. Russia under Vladimir Putin chose order, while Brazil under Cardoso and Lula da Silva chose progress. “Ten years have passed,” the two Russian writers say, “and now it is possible to reach certain conclusions.” Unfortunately, they do not favor Russia.
Russia, they say, moved toward the state control of the energy sector, while Brazil, “on the contrary, moved away from the monopoly of the state petroleum company Petrobras, having allowed 50 new oil and gas companies.” As a result, Russia is now pumping 7.4 percent less oil than in 1990, while Brazil is producing 3.1 times more.
But the oil and gas sector was not the only place where the two countries diverged. In 1994, the two produced almost the same number of cars – 1.03 million in Russia and 1.13 million in Brazil. But 15 years later, in 2009, Russia was producing fewer – only 722,000 – while Brazil had increased production to 3.18 million.
In 1996-97, the two countries produced approximately the same number of civilian aircraft – 5-8 in Russia and 4-10 in Brazil, but in 2009, Russia produced only 14 machines while Brazil manufactured 244. Moreover, today Brazil is able to satisfy 81 percent of its industrial equipment needs from domestic production, while Russia can satisfy only 40 percent of its.
Brazil, the two authors continues, “always was considered a country of social contradictions while Russia was known as one of relative equality guaranteed by the government. But now there is far greater income inequality in Russia than in Brazil, with the Russian poor much poorer relative to the rich than is the case with Brazil’s poorest.
The divergence of the two countries over the past 20 years is found in other spheres as well. “In contrast to the Russian powers that be, politicians in Brasilia understand that once cannot overcome backwardness without education and science.” They have introduced electronic government while Russia has not,
When anyone criticizes Russia for its “not impressive modernization,” he is likely to be told that “Russia is not China.” That’s true, the two authors say. Russia is “not China and will not be.” But at the start of the 1990s, it was similar to Brazil which is something that alas you would not say today.”
In the intervening period, “Brazil began the most important exporter of industrial production in its region, but Russia became the most important importer in its. Brazil has passed through four free election campaigns and is preparing for a fifth, but in Russia it is difficult to suggest how and by whom the next leader will be chosen.”
”Ten years ago,” Inozemtsev and Krasilshchikov say, “the politicians of Russia chose order, while the politicians of Brazil chose progress,” a choice that means that “today progress in Brazil is very much in evidence while order in Russia is not very much so,” exactly the opposite of what so many people expected.
This divergence over the last 20 years is going to profoundly affect Russia’s ability to move away from its current authoritarian regime, Professor Gelman says, noting that those who point to the ways in which Latin American countries have overcome authoritarian regimes as a model for Russia fail to understand just how different the two are.
“Authoritarian regimes,” Gelman points out, “overcome the crisis of legitimacy [that all of them, including Russia’s, experience] either through repression or through purchasing the loyalty of their citizens.” Moscow was able to purchase loyalty when oil revenues were high, and it will use repression if it is challenged.
Clearly the Russian powers that be face problems now, he writes, but “so far the contradictions of the Russian regime have not yet become the all-national conflicts which will lead to its fall.” That pattern of development depends on the emergence of people within the elite prepared to challenge the existing system as well as on the rise of popular opposition.
At president, the regime is “successfully dealing” with popular demonstrations, shifting the blame to regional officials and “not permitting its growing into an anti-system manifestation against the regime as a whole.” And there is good reason to think that the regime will be able to do that for some time to come.
Gelman notes that “the combination of conflicts among the elites and protests from below alone rarely leads to the destruction of authoritarianism.” For that, there must be some kind of “extra external shock,” be it “a sharp ethnic conflict, military defeat or a technogenic catastrophe of the Chernobyl type.” Predicting such things by their very nature is impossible.
In thinking about how Russia may finally go beyond its authoritarian present, many Russian commentators, Gelman continues, often look to “the Latin American experience,” given that so many countries there have shifted from military dictatorships toward democracy over the last several decades.
“It might seem,” the St. Petersburg professor says, that “the Russian regime has not a little in common with Latin American military regimes.” But “the difference between the Russian siloviki and the Latin American military bears a fundamental character,” one that makes changes in Russia far more difficult.
In Brazil or Chile, he writes, the officers, having earned a certain amount of “rent” while in power, are prepared to pass from the political scene more or less peacefully, as long as their gains are not challenged. “But for [Russia’s] siloviki, control over the economy forms the basis of their power, and they are prepared to hold on to it at any price.”
That will make any change in Russia far more difficult and potentially far more violent and radical.