Magazine article IPA Review

Russian Roulette

Magazine article IPA Review

Russian Roulette

Article excerpt

Russian 2010

by Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson

Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Distributed in Australian by Allen & Unwin

THE DEFEAT of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to herald a new era of stability and democracy, not least for the Russians themselves. Unfortunately, history seldom unfolds so neatly. Russia is instead crashing headlong through a protracted economic and political experiment, and few will risk a view as to where it will end.

Russia 2010 is, however, ready to make some considered predictions. Yergin and Gustafson, a pair of American think-tankers who specialize in energy and geopolitics, believe that the country cannot return to communism: the ideological infrastructure has simply withered away. They take the view that by 2010 Russia will have stabilized into some sort of market system. But the road to get there, and the details of the destination, vary widely in the five scenarios the book puts forward.

The first possibility, 'Muddling Down', is essentially an extension of the present. The central government of Russia is presently characterized by deadlock, with a rough three-way balance between pro-market reformers, conservative bureaucrats scrabbling for resources, and authoritarian nationalists. Cutting across this pattern is another cleavage, with the provincial governments having enough power to frustrate Moscow but not enough to break away.

Untidy as it is, there are considerable advantages in this system. Provided the moderates can hold out against the extremists in elections, the process of restructuring the economy will continue, albeit slowly and with periodic setbacks. The key threat is mass unemployment, which could feed fringe movements and paralyse the government entirely. But unemployment can probably be contained through subsidies and promises, and the military -- which must also remain employed -- kept busy with action in one or another recalcitrant province.

In this scenario a weak central government can handle one crisis at a time but if faced with multiple crises it might go under. By 2010, the outlines of a functioning economy and a stable political system will have started to emerge, but a solution will still be a long way off. 'Muddling Down' is the slow, confusing way of reaching capitalism.

ELITES: The second scenario, 'Two-Headed Eagle', sees the emergence of powerful elites within the democratic system. The key is public disgust with crime and corruption, such that a coalition of industrial technocrats, can-do state bureaucrats, and non-communist military heavyweights is elected on a platform of cleaning up the mess with whatever means are necessary. Yergin and Gustafson see this as "the premature reconstitution of a strong state" -- premature because the institutions of the market economy are not sufficiently developed to defend their interests.

The leaders in this model see government largely as a process of dividing resources amongst the lobbies who can influence decision-making. While it provides stability after decades of convulsion, 'Two-Headed Eagle' is a system not for solving problems but for suppressing them, although within a quasi-market framework. Eventually, there is likely to be an explosion expressed through union militancy and ultra-nationalistic splinter parties in the provinces. …

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