Magazine article The Spectator

A Strong Line Required

Magazine article The Spectator

A Strong Line Required

Article excerpt

PUTIN AND THE RISE OF RUSSIA by Michael Stuermer Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 253, ISBN 9780297855095 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

For many years, Professor Michael Stuermer has been one of the West's most respected authorities both on Russia and on Germany. As at home in English as in his native German, he has pursued not only an academic career, but has brought lustre to the usually grubby trade of journalism as chief correspondent for Die Welt. Few can be as well qualified to write about contemporary Russia, to analyse the extraordinary phenomenon of Putin or to add a late addendum on Putin's successor, Dmitri Medvedev.

The resulting book is authoritative, readable and concise. Stuermer traces Putin's rapid rise via Sobchak's mayoral office in St Petersburg and Borodin's holding company for foreign assets to Yeltsin's 'family' at the Kremlin. The new Tsar emerges as a man at home with power who has a strong analytical grasp of the vast difficulties Russia must surmount in order merely to survive, let alone to achieve his primary objective: stability.

The basic facts are depressing. Perhaps the most important is that the population is shrinking, and shrinking rapidly. As Stuermer puts it: 'Russia, in the 19th century a land of infinite population growth, is now a land of elderly women, mostly widows, as men tend to die in their midfifties.' Putin has said that they die of 'excessive drinking and work accidents resulting from booze'. Every year the population shrinks by between 800,000 and 900,000. By 2050, some 'pessimists in Moscow' are forecasting that the population will consist of fewer than 100 million souls. What makes the situation worse is that so many skilled workers are emigrating, dramatically exacerbating Russia's shortage of highly skilled labour.

The only part of the population that is growing is Islamic. By 2030, Islamics will comprise over a third of the population. As Stuermer points out, one of the ways that Russia benefited from the collapse of the Soviet empire was that such a high proportion of the Soviet Union's Islamic population lived in the states that became independent. The demographic crisis is ensuring that Russia has merely delayed the necessity of confronting the Islamic question within its borders.

Russia is also a country that labours under the curse of oil. Stuermer rightly emphasises repeatedly how intimately Russia's international power and the stability of her governments are entwined with the price of oil and gas. Oil and gas are the shock weapons which Russia uses to intimidate the near abroad and the European Union, an institution for which, as Stuermer points out, the Russians entertain an understandable contempt. However, as with other major suppliers of hydrocarbons, the curse -- 'the corrupting influence of too much money in too few hands' -- lulls its victims into reliance on the seductive slurp of petro-dollars alone. For a country like Russia, enmired in corruption and with a tradition of authoritarian government, recently reinforced by the return of the Checkists under Putin to nearly absolute power, this is doubly dangerous. A modern economy, as China is discovering, cannot function and evolve without the rule of law, a free press and parliamentary institutions which hold the government to account. However accurately Putin analyses his country's weaknesses, it is impossible to impose a new mentality of individual liberty from the top down by authoritarian diktat. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.