Russia: Too Sick to Matter?

By Eberstadt, Nicholas | Policy Review, June-July 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia: Too Sick to Matter?


Eberstadt, Nicholas, Policy Review


For Russia and its people, the nightmare of Soviet totalitarianism has come to an end, only to be followed by a phenomenon much more familiar in Russian history: a "time of troubles." And although this current "time of troubles" is surely less brutal for ordinary Russians than the original "Time of Troubles" preceding the accession of the Romanov dynasty - likely milder, indeed, than the other "times of troubles" during the intervening four centuries - today's episode shares with all its predecessors an overarching and indeed defining characteristic: a sudden, dramatic, and, from a Russian nationalist standpoint, distressing enfeeblement of the Russian state.

In barely a decade, Moscow has plummeted from the status of an imperial superpower to a condition of astonishing geopolitical weakness. To be sure, Soviet might, resting as it did upon the grotesque arrangements of a special tyranny, may be said to have been in some sense abnormal. Even so, with today's spectacle - in which the Russian state's role in international affairs is so conspicuously diminished as to seem at times negligible - it would appear that the pendulum has swung toward another, almost equally unnatural, extreme.

The symptoms of the Russian Federation's newly limited capabilities for influencing international events (or for that matter, events within its own borders) are both diverse and abundant. Politically, some would argue, the very existence in Russia of a constitutional democracy - any constitutional democracy - should be regarded as a triumph in itself. Perhaps so, but in Russia today, "real existing constitutional democracy" is, at least for now, an essentially moribund edifice. Its wax museum president; its simultaneously fractious and paralyzed legislature; its fictitious, "Dead Souls" approach to taxation and budgeting; its "federalism" of local unaccountability and central government decay; its largely ineffectual judiciary: In all, the Russian political system is at present poorly suited to effecting decisions, mobilizing resources, or applying governmental will.

From an economic standpoint, Russia's weaknesses are manifest.

Although ambiguities surround both old Soviet economic statistics and the new Russian statistics, official data strongly suggest that the Russian Federation's economy today is amazingly small. In 1997, total reported exports of goods and services were almost identical in Russia (population: nearly 150 million) and Sweden (population: 9 million).

(Russia's trade ledgers are probably distorted by under-reporting, but her true export revenues may still not have matched those of such miniature countries as Singapore and Belgium.1) At official exchange rates, Russia's estimated GNP in 1997 just barely exceeded $400 billion - thus ranking slightly above Australia's ($380 billion).

"Purchasing power parity" (PPP) adjustments alter the picture only to a degree: By that benchmark, according to World Bank calculations, Russia's 1997 economy would have been about as big as Spain's, although smaller than Canada's or Indonesia's. If accurate, those World Bank estimates would have meant that per capita output in 1997 was actually lower in Russia than in such places as Lebanon or Peru.2 All of these figures, furthermore, refer to Russian conditions before the August 1998 collapse of the country's finances, since which time the country's economic performance has only worsened.

Then there is the matter of military strength. Since the collapse of communism, Moscow's has evidently all but evaporated. Where the Red Army once entertained global ambitions, the Russian Army's conventional forces now find containing an insurrection in a small region within the nation's borders to be an almost overwhelming challenge. The dismal performance of the Russian Army in Chechnya attests to no less; the very fact that the military campaign to suppress Chechen rebels had to last nearly two years speaks for itself. …

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